Don't let terror stifle expression 1

August 12, 2005

An important function of universities is to "sustain a culture that demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones", according to the Dearing report.

Thus it is seen as essential that academic staff shall have "freedom... to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs", as the Education Reform Act 1988 states. A university strives to provide "students with an opportunity to consider for themselves the values needed in a democratic society... (and) a chance to reflect on the vulnerability of such a society and the need for continued support for the values that underpin it" - the Dearing report again.

Last week, the Prime Minister expressed his determination to introduce legislation to make an offence of "condoning or glorifying terrorism". Unless carefully handled, this could constitute a serious threat to academic freedom and to free expression in this country.

In the Terrorism Act 2000, terrorism is defined ( inter alia ) as the use or threat of action designed to influence the Government for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause that involves serious violence against a person, involves serious damage to property or creates a serious risk to the health or safety of a section of the public.

One problem is that the term "terrorist" has been cast so broadly that it could be construed to cover almost any group hoping to influence the Government by means that may involve direct action. A second problem is that one person's terrorist is another's freedom fighter.

If the Government is now to make an offence of what could be represented as condoning or glorifying terrorism, it is easy to see a threat to the sort of debate, discussion and campaigning traditionally treated as legitimate activities in a free society. Mainstream Christians pray daily to God to "pull down the mighty from their seat, to fill the hungry with good things and to send the rich empty away".

William Blake's vigorous hymn, which is sung regularly by the Women's Institute, urges the unceasing use of the sword to build a "Jerusalem" of peace and justice in place of the oppression of England's "dark, Satanic mills". Beside this, the Mayor of London's reported statement that he understands why Palestinian suicide bombers use their bodies as a last resort seems quite mild.

It is essential for the health of universities, and indeed of society as a whole, that the legality of impassioned political debate should not be compromised. This includes debate on the legitimacy of warfare, and about particular instruments of war, and on whether coercion might properly be used as a means of achieving social justice at home and abroad.

Unless there are some clearly worded exclusion clauses in the proposed legislation, academic freedom in universities and free speech in the country will suffer a serious blow. If this happens, the vulnerability of the values needed in a democratic society will indeed have been demonstrated. Some people believe that this is precisely one of the traps that al-Qaeda has set for Western governments.

David Packham, Bath University

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