Ben Waters

Recently, a number of events that occurred at British universities sparked another tired and superficial attempt at the freedom of expression debate. First we had the refusal to distribute sombreros at the University of East Anglia Freshers’ Fair on grounds of cultural appropriation, and then the refusal to endorse or distribute self-acclaimed free speech magazine No Offence at the Oxford University Student’s Union. Some would say these executive decisions are ironic in the context of the beautiful free-flowing expression that spills out like fairy dust from the institution of the British university. I’m calling bullshit.

I won’t address the cultural appropriation issue here because I think 800 words in a student newspaper is scarcely enough to review an episode of Geordie Shore (my next article), nor will I discuss the obscene comments that were made on the Oxford online discussion group ‘Open Oxford’ by proponents of the No Offence magazine (comments such as “Enoch Powell was right”). What I will do is sketch out the massive distinction between the romantic notion of “free speech” some seem to think is owed to them (one without bounds, and by extension with some insidious consequences) and the real freedom of expression that is granted to us – limited by two things: the prohibition of hate speech and the government’s counter-terrorism ‘Prevent’ strategy.

Like the editors of No Offence, I too have some qualms with the current state of the ‘freedoms’ granted to us. Though my concerns aren’t so much concerned with the right to make fun of transgender students finding it hard enough to go about their daily lives, re-explaining their pronouns and integrating with an overwhelmingly cis-normative society. Nor is it to make BME students feel unwelcome, othered or guilt-trip them for disrupting the ethnic homogeneity of this country. These are by and large very much the effects of No Offence’s poor attempt at satire. And to attempt to refute that conclusion shows a lack of engagement with what it means to be a non-white and/or transgender person – and how these actions contribute to existing structural inequalities faced by such groups. Though this too, is another article in and of itself.

Instead my concern is far more to do with the state-mandated counter-terrorism strategy called ‘Prevent’. This obliges every public service provider in the country, including universities and local councils (literally every public service provider employed personnel in the UK) to report any people (including children) they believe to hold extreme views. It is worth noting that the government’s definition of what counts as extreme is rather vague and conveniently ever-expanding. Extremist opinion (a non-violent expression) according to the government, is anything that stands in opposition to British values and the ideology of the state. The government is targeting what they deem a ‘pre-criminal space’.

One may think it is fairly obvious which views are causes for concern and which are not, and that because of this, the Prevent strategy is a sensible policy. Unfortunately this isn’t the case. The consequences of this insidious policy have resulted in a fourteen-year old Muslim school pupil being reported to the authorities (under the Prevent act) for mentioning the concept of eco-terrorism within a discussion about eco-activism. The boy was questioned about his views on ISIS by staff and the police, and monitored without parental consent. A similar incident occurred at Staffordshire University where counter-terrorism student, Mohammed Umar Farooq was reported for reading a book on terrorism. Instances like these are now commonplace because of Prevent. You may think these events do not threaten freedom of expression, and are, by and large harmless. This too is sadly untrue. Samina Malik, a shop assistant and poet from Southhall, was given a nine-month sentence (which was ultimately overturned) for writing poetry that was deemed to be inciting terrorism. Attacks on freedom of expression (and freedom in general) go even further under Prevent. Moazzam Begg, a British Pakistani and owner of an Islamic book shop, was detained extrajudicially and unconstitutionally multiple times at HMP Belmarsh, Bagram, and last but not least, Guantanamo Bay. He states that he was tortured at Bagram, hog-tied, kicked, punched, left in a room with a bag put over his head (even though he suffers from asthma), sworn at, and threatened with extraordinary rendition to Egypt. He has still not been charged.

If these events are an indication of anything, it is that freedom of expression had been compromised far before the surge of political correctness – and poses far more legitimate danger to the freedoms that free speech activists claim to be seeking. Instead, they conflate entitlement to defy political correctness with a genuine discussion of the freedoms that a society should offer – especially to the most vulnerable. The systematic penalisation of Middle-Eastern and South Asian passing people and a restriction of their freedom to express should be of concern to such activists.
The implications of the Prevent strategy pose a systematic threat to the integrity of all public institutions – including this university. Virtually any staff member can, and is legally obliged to, report anyone they believe to be inciting extremist belief. The cases of Moazzam Begg, Mohammed Umar Farooq, Samina Malik and countless more, show that this is a fundamentally flawed approach. So if free speech activists would like to superficially address the merits and limits of political correctness, go ahead – but the real threat to our freedom of expression is still at large.