Freedom of speech at Bath could be damaged by new terror laws

The University of Bath is likely to update its Freedom of Expression guidelines in light of the Counter Terrorism and Security Act which was passed on 12th March.

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Students gather for the Charlie Hebdo memorial in January

Currently, the University of Bath policy provides a platform for all speakers, with the exception of those who preach violence. It is possible that, given Home Office Prevent guidelines expected by the end of the month, these exemptions could be extended to ‘non-violent extremists’.

The move is prompted after the controversial Counter Terrorism and Security Act passed through Parliament. Key to the legislation are a set of guidelines, known as Prevent, which aim to tackle the roots of extremism including within universities and schools.

The bill has, however, been strongly watered down both in the House of Commons and House of Lords.

Significantly, the legislation made no reference to external speakers at universities, something which had been lambasted by higher education institutions. This omission is said to be down to a refusal by Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg and Vince Cable who were said to have blocked any rules, amid concerns about the potential impact on free speech on campus.

The Prevent guidelines will issue guidance on external speakers in the future. Once announced, the University of Bath will be obliged to update its Freedom of Expression guidelines, which could extend to more closely monitoring ‘nonviolent extremists’.

A spokesman for the University of Bath Students’ Union told bathimpact, “Once the Prevent guidelines are issued at the end of the month we work closely with the University in order to update Freedom of Expression policy. In doing so we will ensure our obligations to providing free debate remain unhindered.”

Currently, the Freedom of Expression guidelines state that, under the duty of the 1986 Education Act, “the University is committed to promoting and positively encouraging free debate and enquiry.”

“This means that it accommodates a wide range of views, political as well as academic, even when they are unpopular, controversial and provocative”, it goes on to say.

In 2008, the University of Bath received national attention after cancelling a visit of British National Party leader, Nick Griffin, on the grounds of the “likelihood of substantial public order problems and real possibility of disruption.”

On the legislation, a University of Bath spokesperson said, “The guidance for higher education and other sectors has recently been published and is due to be considered soon by both Houses of Parliament. Further guidance is also due to come out on visiting speakers. Once the final form of guidance is clear, the University will reflect on how to ensure it is compliant with the new legislative framework.”

The Counter Terrorism and Security Act does make reference to the fact that “young people continue to make up a disproportionately high number of those arrested…for terrorist-related offences,” and that “universities must be vigilant and aware of the risks this poses.”

Suggestions on how to do so will be highlighted in the Prevent guidelines, however it is unlikely to demand certain students are monitored by the University. The act is clear, however, that universities and student unions must work to challenge extremist view which draw people to terrorism.

The legislation does imply that University staff and Students’ Union Officers on how to identify students at-risk of radicalisation which, again, will be clarified in the Prevent guidelines.

Last week it was announced that any rules on external speakers would not include the University of Cambridge or Oxford students’ unions as they are, by law, entirely separate from the actual institutions.

Radicalisation at universities have been called into question over the past few weeks after it emerged the infamous ‘Jihadi John’, known for executing aid workers and journalists for IS, was a graduate from the University of Westminster.

A report issued by the Centre for Social Cohesion in 2010 suggested that more than 30% of people convicted for Al Qa’ida-associated terrorist offences in the UK between 1999 and 2009 are known to have attended university or a higher education institution.

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