"We will never know about the thoughts left unsaid, the articles left unwritten, the lectures considered but never proposed"Noella Chye

We owe the moral, political and intellectual progress of our species more than anything to individuals whose beliefs or values were sharply at odds with those prevalent at the time. Ockham, Machiavelli, Luther, Giordano Bruno, Galileo, Hobbes, Spinoza, Locke, Hume, Voltaire - these all stand in this tradition, and at the head of it there was, as Mill wrote, ‘a man named Socrates, between whom and the legal authorities and public opinion of his time, there took place a memorable collision’. We remember Socrates as the founder of Western thought; his followers invented the idea of a university. But the upshot of this collision was Socrates’ execution on the charge of ‘corrupting the youth’ of Athens; and it seems that the threat of that charge (though not of that sentence) has revived against modern universities. The effect, predictably enough, is not only a diversion of their resources but an increasing chill on the sort of free and often uncomfortable discussion of ideas that constitutes much of the point of a university.

“It is one thing for the state to prevent anyone, by force if necessary, from violent means of achieving whatever ends he or she has. It is quite another thing to regulate the ends themselves”

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 introduced measures aimed at preventing people from being drawn into terrorism. Public bodies, including higher education institutions, are in consequence subject to the statutory Prevent Duty, meaning that universities are required by law to demonstrate the relevant safeguards. Specifically, these arrangements are supposed to govern speech as well as actions. Two things about the duty should especially alarm anyone concerned with free speech: the language in which it is framed, and the increasing evidence that its imposition is resulting not only in direct state-mandated censorship, though this also exists, but in an environment in which we are silencing ourselves.

The Government’s guidance for Higher Education Institutions states that ‘when deciding whether or not to host a particular speaker, [the relevant bodies] should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups. In these circumstances the event should not be allowed to proceed except where [the relevant bodies] are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated without cancellation of the event.’ The general guidance defines ‘extremism’ as: ‘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.’

First of all, everything in life carries some element of risk. How is it even possible for anyone to be ’entirely convinced’ of the ’full mitigation’ of the risk that someone, somewhere, might be drawn into terrorism after hearing a lecture on, say, Lenin’s social and political philosophy or Peter Singer’s views on animal rights? So are we supposed to cancel any such event? I don’t suppose that that was anyone’s intention; but you could not have inferred this from the wording of the guidance.

Second, the definition of extremism itself here is absurdly broad. ‘Vocal opposition to democracy’ covers an enormous range of views, not only because of the many things that ‘democracy’ might mean but also because of the many objections that one might raise against it. One might, for example, think that because the individual incentives to vote responsibly are so small, and the collective consequences of irresponsible voting so large, democracy at a large enough scale will inevitably malfunction. Similarly, anyone acquainted with both the impoverished intellectual basis and the vast and disastrous consequences of many religions might think that they deserve toleration but certainly not ‘respect’. Whether or not these views are true, they deserve the sort of discussion which, if we continue down this path, is going to be precluded from the very institutions that were designed to conduct it.

Perhaps most importantly, the language represents a shift from what you would have thought was the aim of anti-terrorist legislation, namely the prevention of certain crimes, towards something far more sinister: the promotion of particular values. It is one thing for the state to prevent anyone, by force if necessary, from violent means of achieving whatever ends he or she has. It is quite another thing to regulate the ends themselves, that being a job not for proper police but for thought police. Individual liberty is indeed a fundamental value of humanity if anything is; but if it means anything then it means the liberty to question all values, including itself.

“Perhaps the universities of tomorrow, safe at least from Islamic terrorism in their cocoons of blandness and intellectual vacuity, might feel relief”

One recent illustration of the descending fog of self-censorship is the decision by staff at the University of Reading to warn students about an essay by a British academic on revolutionary violence (N. Geras, ‘Our morals: the ethics of revolution’). According to the Guardian, ‘third-year politics undergraduates have been warned not to access it on personal devices, to read it only in a secure setting, and not to leave it lying around where it might be spotted “inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it”. The alert came after the text was flagged by the university as “sensitive” under the Prevent programme.’ I hope that this will in fact prompt students at Reading and everywhere else to read the essay and to distribute it more widely; but my fear is of the opposite.

The incident is not isolated, and nor are similar incidents isolated to universities: a 2016 report by the Open Society Justice Initiative, Eroding Trust, lists fifteen examples of people being targeted in consequence of the general Prevent duties, for making jokes, for acting in plays or simply for holding particular religious or political views. As you might expect, these cases disproportionately involve Muslims. And of course we will never know about the thoughts left unsaid, the articles left unwritten, the lectures considered but never proposed.


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Mountain View

The reality of Prevent: lacking in consistency and accountability

The Prevent duty doesn’t exist in a vacuum but has appeared in the context of increasing hostility to free speech from both left and right. For reasons that I never could understand, there seems nowadays to be a widespread acceptance that the potential harms that might sometimes be risked by saying things somehow outweigh the obvious and enormously well-confirmed benefits of being able to say them at will. But perhaps this regression is not so surprising: after all, any sort of acquaintance with the history of just about anywhere readily shows what a fragile thing individual liberty really is. And perhaps the universities of tomorrow, safe at least from Islamic terrorism in their cocoons of blandness and intellectual vacuity, might feel only relief at having left behind what Tacitus called those rare and happy times when you could think what you like and say what you think.

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