It is a startling about-turn. The National Union of Students, who have played a considerable role in the dismal recent history of campus censorship, are suddenly sounding as though they have ingested the complete works of John Stuart Mill.
The ‘basic function of universities,' the NUS declare, is ‘introducing students to a variety of opinions and encouraging them to analyse and debate them'. They are warning of ‘a significant threat to civil liberties and freedom of speech on campuses’. This is a reference to the Prevent counter-terrorism guidelines, which come into force at universities today, and which the NUS is promising to oppose at every level. It is tempting to ask the NUS where all this enthusiasm for free speech has come from. But the temptation should be resisted, because they have a point.
Much of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy is shrewd and necessary – but these things need to be implemented with great delicacy. Just ask Rizwaan Sabir, the masters student at Nottingham who was ineptly detained for seven days after downloading a document from a US government website. The new Prevent regulations make it a legal duty for universities to monitor speaker events. They also require staff to be aware of significant ‘changes in behaviour and outlook’ among students.
Whatever you think of the rules, the government has to show they have listened to the affected parties - most obviously Muslim students - in order to avoid alienating them and perhaps fomenting the problems Prevent is supposed to address. They also must listen to universities, who may feel they’re being bulldozed by unsympathetic politicians. Meanwhile, those of us who are anxious about free speech – which apparently now includes the NUS – will ask how the regulations can avoid contributing to an atmosphere of timidity and de facto censorship.
Far from providing reassurance on these points, the government has repeatedly given an impression of vague-minded incompetence. The original consultation recommended that ‘all staff’ should have an awareness of what draws people into terrorism. It also advised that university authorities should receive notice of campus events 14 days in advance and should ask for an account of the content, including any presentations. These proposals gave rise to a substantial outcry, including a fine piece of ironic understatement from the Russell Group of 24 leading universities. It would be difficult, the group noted, to train their combined total of 150,000 staff. The obligation to vet every speaker’s powerpoint a fortnight in advance, they continued, ‘would be impractical to implement’. These requirements were dropped. But they do not inspire confidence in the rest of the plan.
A broader concern is about what counts as proto-terrorist activity. Number 10 tried to clarify this last week by ‘naming and shaming’ universities which had hosted extremists. However, the named universities were unsure what exactly they were meant to be ashamed of. Queen Mary revealed that the government's extremism analysis unit had not asked for any information about the events in question. SOAS said that most of the alleged speakers hadn’t visited the place – and the one who had gave a talk on the subject of financial ethics. It all made the policy look both draconian and ham-fisted.
It also looks worryingly ambiguous. According to the 2011 Prevent document, extremism means ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs'. Each of these ‘values’ could have all kinds of definitions. As Sir Ken Macdonald, the former director of public prosecutions, observed in his surprisingly fierce denunciation of the strategy, ‘opposing democracy’ would put Plato on the wrong side of the law.
Theresa May has claimed that the definition of extremism is ‘limited, practical and inclusive’ and she has insisted more than once that extremism is not ‘simply social conservatism’. But apparently the news hasn’t reached Tory MP Mark Spencer, who believes that the government’s idea of ‘extremism’ should be used to sanction teachers with reservations about gay marriage. If May’s own colleagues aren’t sure what she’s talking about, what hope for overworked, under-informed university administrators with the government and the police looking over their shoulders?
The universities minister Jo Johnson is pressing the NUS to get on side. I hope they stand firm – and as for their recent history, let’s let bygones be bygones. These days, free speech needs all the friends it can get.