We have heard a lot about Prevent, a new legal duty that requires us to “have regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism” which came into force last year. At one level that might sound reasonable enough. Who would not want to prevent people being drawn into terrorism?
However, there has been fierce criticism of this new duty on universities and in particular the requirement to assess the risk of any speaker or event on campus promoting extremist views. The National Union of Students (NUS) has been resolutely opposed to the duty, which, it says, poses a “significant threat to civil liberties and freedom of speech on campuses”. Edinburgh University’s Student Association has raised similar concerns locally.
A university without debate would be a pretty poor university. So any accusation that the Prevent duty will stifle debate on campuses by preventing controversial speakers should be taken seriously.
Prevent really does not have the most promising of histories – it started off under Labour in the early 2000s and was originally about working with community groups to combat disadvantage and inequality.
Somewhere along the line, however, community cohesion policies became associated with counter-terrorism.By 2011, both a House of Commons Committee and the Equality and Human Rights Commission had concluded that Prevent measures were contributing to Muslim communities feeling stigmatised by authorities solely because of their religion. Academic experts on terrorism generally agree and think Prevent is misguided. So when people talk, as they do, about Prevent being a ‘toxic brand’, this is the sort of background that they have in mind.
The Conservative Government relaunched Prevent in 2011, refocusing it on “extremist ideology” and “preventing radicalisation”. Out of this came the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015) which extended the Prevent duty to universities.
At Edinburgh, we have responded to the new duty in a proportionate way that is consistent with the guidelines issued by the government; but also with our own values. At the heart of our measures is a Policy on Speakers and Events that requires anyone organising an event which is not part of normal academic or administrative business to answer some simple questions. Is the topic controversial? Is the speaker? Are there any risks associated with this event?
Along with Prevent, we have deliberately included a range of statutory risks to be considered. These include risks to health and safety, risks to our Equality Act obligations and, most significantly, any risk to our statutory duty to protect freedom of speech and expression.
This approach means we are not just focused on events that might discuss extremism or radicalisation. We do not want to categorise and stigmatise. Indeed we want to foster the conditions in which challenging or non-mainstream views can be given, discussed and, on the balance of the arguments put, accepted or rejected by participants in an atmosphere of open, constructive and civil debate. That is what universities are for.
The new policy came into force in early 2016 and hundreds of events at Edinburgh have been planned, risk assessed, and delivered since then. A total of eight events were referred for formal consideration by the University under the new Policy and two were refused – neither to do with Prevent.
The first was because the speaker required security protection too late for this to be arranged; the second (an external booking request) because the organisation’s values were incompatible with those of the University.
So the message if you are planning to invite a speaker onto campus is very clear – the University is committed to free speech and freedom of expression on campus; it is committed to challenge and debate, which is at the very heart of what a university does; and if you think the University will stop you from hosting a challenging debate on campus – well, put forward your idea and you may well be surprised. While we need to comply with the law, we will do so firmly within our own traditions.
Those traditions have always been willing to see convention challenged and new ideas considered on their intellectual merits rather than the priorities of the government of the day.
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