Counter-Terror bill receives Royal Assent

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which many academics fear will suppress freedom of speech in universities, has received Royal Assent.

February 12, 2015

Subject to parliamentary approval of secondary legislation before the end of next month, the new law will place higher education institutions under a statutory duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.

This will, for example, require universities to consider government guidance when deciding who may speak on campus. If an institution is felt to have consistently failed to follow the guidance, the Home Office will have the power to issue a direction, enforceable by a court order.

Theresa May, the home secretary, said that the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris last month highlighted the need to “combat the underlying ideology that feeds, supports and sanctions terrorism”.

“We must all work together as a nation to confront, challenge and defeat extremism and terrorism in all its forms, and stand up and speak out for our fundamental values,” Ms May said.

Speaking as the bill passed the House of Commons on 10 February, Ms May highlighted amendments which require universities and ministers to have “particular regard” to academic freedom and freedom of speech when exercising their new duties.

Another amendment will require guidance relating to the bill to be put before Parliament. Previous proposals, which would have required speakers to tell universities what they planned to say two weeks in advance, were criticised as being unworkable.

Speaking in the Commons on 10 February, Liberal Democrat MP David Heath said the guidance should not be “too bureaucratic” or “have hurdles that are impossible for large universities to jump”.

“I have to say that I would be quite incapable of telling a university where I was speaking what I was going to say two weeks in advance – I do not know what I am going to say when I stand up to make a speech,” Mr Heath said.

Ms May told MPs that the guidance would be clear “so that universities can operate appropriately”.

“It is important for universities, notwithstanding academic freedom and the need to secure freedom of speech, also to recognise the duty of care they have to students,” she added. “That is why I believe it absolutely right for universities to be within this legislation and within the Prevent duty that is being put into statute.”

In a letter to The Times on 28 January, 24 university leaders had called for higher education to be excluded from the statutory duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This call was repeated by chairs of subject associations in a letter to Times Higher Education, published on 5 February.

On 3 February, more than 500 professors signed a letter to The Guardian warning that the bill was “unnecessary and ill-conceived”.

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