‘Counter-Extremism’ Efforts May Restrict Speech in the Classroom: Right Group

    ‘Counter-Extremism’ Efforts May Restrict Speech in the Classroom: Right Group

    Oct.26, London: This week the UK published its new Counter-Extremism Strategy, which lays out a number of policies intended to address extremism—both violent and non-violent. The strategy says that the government should review and possibly expand a new duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. This duty—enacted in February—has been imposed on certain public institutions, including schools, universities, prisons and hospitals. Before it even considers expanding the duty, the government’s review should examine the impact the duty is already having on the rights of children in schools and students in universities.

    Educators are worried. Teaching and academic trade unions have suggested that the duty is hard to implement, threatens freedom of expression, could erode trust between teachers and students, and may be counterproductive to the wellbeing of children and university students.

    I spent the past two weeks in London speaking with a range of educators, administrators, and community groups about the effects thus far of the policy. I heard about students referred to authorities for practicing their faith. I heard about parents warning their children not to express political or religious beliefs at school.

    Other incidents have been reported in the media. A 14-year-old Muslim student was questioned by a child protection officer after he used the term “ecoterrorism” in a class discussion. A postgraduate student in counterterrorism studies was accused by his university of being a potential terrorist for reading a book on terrorism.

    Under the duty, schools and universities must take action to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism. According to guidance issued by the government to implement the February legislation, the duty encompasses both violent and non-violent extremism, which the guidance says can “create an atmosphere conducive to terrorism.” The definition of extremism includes “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values.”

    These incidents raise worries that the duty to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism is penalizing ordinary, law-abiding behavior, including discussions and debates in classrooms and universities. These concerns should be addressed in any review of the duty.

    MPs and Lords should also take heed. The strategy identifies a range of powers that the Prime Minister will seek from Parliament in upcoming legislation. It also stresses the importance of basic rights, and of policy-making that is based in evidence. Those will be important indeed as discussion commences on new efforts to address extremism.

    The Oslo Times/HRW


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