Freedom of speech and counter-extremism: UK Joint Committee for Human Rights

After evidence emerged that freedom of speech at universities is being threatened by counter-extremism policies like the UK’s Prevent strategy, the House of Lords and House of Commons ordered the Joint Committee for Human Rights (JCHR) in March 2018 to report on Freedom of Speech at universities in relation to Prevent.

These are the formal minutes relating to the report presented to the House of Lords and House of Commons.

The JCHR acknowledges in the minutes that universities must be places where open and uncensored debate (within the law) can take place “so students can think for themselves and develop their own opinions on ideas which may be unpopular, controversial or provocative”.

It’s concerns noted in the minutes include that:

  • the concept of safe spaces is either too broad or very vague;
  • minority views should not be barred from student union premises;
  • some university codes on freedom of speech and procedures for inviting external speakers put barriers to events, rather than facilitating them, where the purpose of these codes is to facilitate freedom of speech;
  • the Charity Commission’s approach to regulating free speech through the lens of counter-extremism in student unions is problematic and “unduly restrictive”;
  • the Office of Students should intervene if problems emerge and provide means by which students can report incidents of intimidation and issues related to free speech;
  • there are reports that Prevent inhibits free speech through “the fear of being reported for organising or attending an event, combined with the increased levels of bureaucracy” it brings.

The JCHR reiterated its call for an independent review of the Prevent policy. It said that such a report should especially “consider its impact on free speech in universities particularly on Muslim students but also on students of other faiths or no religious faiths”.

While the government’s independent review of Prevent was three years’ late, Prevent Watch – together with a number of expert panels, a volunteer research team and several academics, co-authored with Prof. John Holmwood, the People’s Review of Prevent.

These minutes from the JCHR report are worth reading by those seeking the removal of Prevent in education.

You can find them HERE.

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

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