Policy is disempowering and has chilling effect provoking self censorship, says Liberty
Corey Stoughton, director of advocacy at the human rights organisation, said the tactics of the strategy for monitoring campus activism had a “chilling effect” on black and Muslim students, provoking self censorship for fear of being labelled extremist.
“There is a substantial irony in the government spuriously accusing today’s students of threatening free speech when, in fact, the true threat to free speech on campus is the government’s own policies,” said Stoughton said, a former civil rights lawyer at the US department of justice during the Obama administration.
She added: “Indeed, it is an almost Trumpian manoeuvre to distract from a series of government policies that deliberately set out to stifle debate and disempower the voices of people on campuses who may challenge government orthodoxy.”Advertisement
Recently regulators and the government have issued guidance to protect free speech on campuses, with one minister claiming that “overzealous interpretation of a dizzying variety of rules” was stifling legitimate free speech.
But Stoughton said that the Prevent guidelines, which require administrators to identify and limit speakers with extremist views, were themselves the biggest hurdle to the operation of free speech within university communities.
“Through the Prevent strategy the government imposes obligations on universities and members of university communities that either directly interfere with speech or have the foreseeable and actual effect of chilling the exercise of free expression.
“There is every reason to believe that black and minority ethnic students and academics, as well as those of Muslim faith, will be caught up in the Prevent programme, and even more reason to know that their exercise of the right to freedom of speech, conscience and association has been compromised.”
Figures published by the Office for Students showed that, of more than 300 higher education institutions in England, nearly 60,000 events and speakers were considered under the Prevent duty last year, with more than 2,100 approved with conditions attached.
Research by academics at Soas, University of London, found Muslim students modifying their behaviour because of Prevent, for fear of being stigmatised, labelled as extremist or subjected to discrimination.
Stoughton also criticised “hand wringing” over threats to free speech on campus, when evidence showed that student attitudes towards free speech were in line with those of the rest of the British population.
“People talk about a crisis of free speech on campus, fretting about ‘snowflakes’ and ‘safe spaces’ and ‘no platforming’ and other unhelpful rhetorical devices. But the evidence shows that there is no crisis of free speech on campuses,” she said.
Stoughton’s remarks came in a paper published by the Higher Education Policy Institute (Hepi), in which she argued that Prevent was overdue an independent review, as the government had promised.
“If it is a genuine independent inquiry then we have before us an excellent chance to remedy a real threat to free speech and equality on campus. The desire to interrupt the process of radicalisation is a laudable one, but we cannot let that desire override the very liberties and values that many of today’s terrorists seek to threaten,” Stoughton said.
Nick Hillman, director of Hepi, described Stoughton’s commentary as a nuanced but firm defence of free speech.
“There are few justifications for limiting free speech beyond current laws. That is true whether it is students wanting to block provocateurs from speaking or government ministers mixing up the prevention of terrorism with blocking legitimate free expression,” Hillman said.
Parliament’s joint committee on human rights last year said it found no “wholesale censorship” of free speech at universities, with bureaucracy and Prevent as much of a concern as the small number of infringements highlighted by the media.