Proposed legislation that could see universities forced to ban extremist speakers from campuses amounts to “censorship”, it has been claimed.
Theresa May, the home secretary, last week announced plans to place universities under a statutory duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism, requiring institutions to consider government guidance when deciding who may speak on campus.
Under proposals set out in the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, if an institution was felt to have consistently failed to follow guidance, the Home Office could issue a direction enforceable by a court order. But university leaders fear that the rules would hinder freedom of speech.
Bill Rammell, the vice-chancellor of the University of Bedfordshire and a former Labour higher education minister, said the legislation was the wrong way to tackle “one of the biggest challenges of our age”.
“When I was in government,” he said, “I argued that if extremist groups are not [banned organisations], they are best challenged within universities through scrutiny and vigorous debate and challenge. I still hold that view.”
Richard Black, the pro director (research and enterprise) at Soas, University of London, writes in a blog post that banning certain views “surely sets back true intellectual inquiry”. “Hearing and addressing all perspectives is of critical importance,” he says. “And the moment when a law tells us we cannot do that is censorship, plain and simple.”
Pam Tatlow, chief executive of the Million+ group of universities, said that placing on institutional leaders a duty to “prevent” terrorism was a “questionable” strategy. “The bill changes the relationship between universities and government. Cooperation will be replaced by co-option without any evidence that universities have been failing to work with the police and security services on issues of terrorism.”
However, Dusty Amroliwala, deputy vice-chancellor of the University of East London, said that although details of the legislation would need scrutiny, the bill did not appear to go significantly beyond universities’ current duty of care. UEL has in the past blocked speakers – including one who had called for the execution of gay people – from addressing its Islamic Society.
“Certain forms of controversy can be downright healthy in a university,” Mr Amroliwala said. “But for the university to give a platform to a man who stands in front of a large crowd and beseeches them that, if they know gay men and women, that they should be put to death, is something we find totally inappropriate, and it offends the core values, codes and morals of our institution.”