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Prevent Is a Free Speech Issue, So Opponents Should Not Ally With the NUS

23/10/2015 11:44 BST | Updated 22/10/2016 10:12 BST

This week, the NUS finished its current "Students Not Suspects" tour which was allegedly aimed at fighting the Government's new Prevent strategy to deal with extremism, particularly the threat of Islamist extremism. While the Prevent strategy certainly has its flaws, the NUS's diagnosis is firstly woefully misguided, and moreover nobody truly concerned with the problems with Prevent can ally with the NUS in the first instance.

The first problem with Prevent itself is that the criteria that it warns educators to look for are currently very broad, including the idea that opposition to same-sex marriage is "extremist", despite the fact that it is a view held by many mainstream Christians and indeed the Catholic Church, so it's hardly a fringe, extremist view. While I personally agree with same-sex marriage, it would be foolish of me (or anyone else) to claim that you can only oppose it if you're a bigot, still less that your opposition is inherently so harmful to society that you ought to be referred to the authorities. Anecdotal evidence such as accusing a Muslim terrorism studies student of terrorist sympathies because he was reading a book for his course, also compounds the picture that the criteria of Prevent are overly broad. The obvious answer, however, would be to lobby for the criteria to be narrowed, or at the very least for better practices; while nobody should seriously contend that a desire for "political change" is a sign of extremism (as the government's strategy currently does), I doubt that the same could be said for a schoolchild writing that when he grows up he wants to be a suicide bomber.

The biggest problem with Prevent, however, is its chilling effect on freedom of speech, with proposals to "disrupt" extremism including the banning of non-violent organisations and speakers, and even restrictions on access to premises used by extremists, in the same chilling vein as the proposed "extremism disruption orders" that were floated in the aftermath of the General Election. Indeed, it would even authorise the Higher Education Funding Council to cut the funding to Universities that do not comply with the new measures to vet extremist speakers. The censoring of legal speech in such a manner should concern anyone who truly cares about freedom of speech; nobody is even contending that the Islamist preachers (or far-right demagogues), who are likely to find their opportunities to speak at Universities unduly influenced by the measures, are doing anything which is currently illegal yet their activities are to be restricted anyway.

This gets to the heart of the problem; when preachers such as Anjem Choudhary manage to carefully tread within the line of the law, the solution is not to lower the legal line so that they now cross it (since, for one, any line drawn will necessarily result in speakers cleaving as close to the line as possible without so crossing), but confronting their ideas with better speech. Indeed, the Government has even recognised the need to empower groups that do tackle extremists, though why this should then also entail restricting the rights of the latter is unclear to say the least. Moreover, while David Cameron may lament the idea of extremist preachers receiving the "oxygen of publicity" when justifying such measures, he forgets that in fact sunlight is the best disinfectant; for all the furore created by the no-platform brigade over the c.3,000 membership requests received by the BNP in the wake of Nick Griffin's appearance on Question Time, much more should be made of the fact that many times that amount surely watched the programme and realised that the BNP was not, in fact, a legitimate party of protest, something to which their abysmal showing in the following European election would seem to attest.

In the face of yet another assault on free speech at Universities, this time by the Government, at first glance one may seem grateful that the NUS opposes Prevent. However, when we look at the NUS's reasons for doing so, they miss the point completely. NUS VP Shelly Asquith, for instance, characterised Prevent as being about "racial profiling", and indeed in Oxford the then-chair of CRAE argued that Prevent was about marginalising the voices of people of colour, none of which seems supported by any evidence. Indeed, it seems completely disingenuous to argue that Jordan Horner would not be treated in exactly the same manner as Abu Izzadeen under the scheme. More to the point, by focusing on the alleged racial profiling of the scheme, the following question must be asked of the NUS and its allies: would the tools or objectives of Prevent be more acceptable if directed at the views the NUS sabs themselves consider to be extremist?

While anyone seriously concerned about free speech - which must necessarily extend to those with whom you disagree, or even despise - such a question would surely be answered in the negative, the actions of the NUS and their allies suggest that they would in fact answer in the positive. The most obvious example here is the no-platform policy, which has banned the radical Islamist Hizb-ut-Tahrir for years despite the fact that they are non-violent, and was expanded even further at the last round of NUS Conferences to cover any speech the relevant sabs deemed racist, sexist, or homophobic among other things, making their lip-service to free speech in statements opposing Prevent look hollow at best.

Moreover, when the NUS sent a letter falsely representing to the Durham Union in 2010 that inviting the BNP to debate multiculturalism was illegal - and threatened to bus people in precisely to threaten student safety - and when OUSU passed a motion to whip up a violent mob (sorry, "protest") against the visit of Marine Le Pen to the Oxford Union to the extent that those of us fortunate enough to get into the Chamber ended up under Police protection (with OUSU sabbatical officers seemingly more concerned with condemning Le Pen than the verbal abuse directed at those not so fortunate according to eyewitness accounts), their actions spoke far louder than words. Frankly, if the NUS believes that speakers should be shouted down and no-platformed because they're "extremist", then surely you would expect this to cut both ways, and to cover radical Islamists that refuse to condemn terrorism or sometimes even speak in a non-segregated venue. Unsurprisingly - when you consider that the NUS's current Black Students Officer was a key player in getting the NEC to refuse to pass a motion condemning ISIS who against a motion to do exactly that and argued that to pass the motion (proposed by a Kurdish member of the NEC) was "racist" and "Islamophobic" - this logic seems to escape the NUS when apologists and advocates for Islamism - an ideology which the NUS seems to find more agreeable (despite its calls for death for apostasy and homosexuality, for instance, and its most naked expression in ISIS) than the right-wing populism of Marine Le Pen - become the main targets of Prevent.

And as if the NUS's own disingenuous reasoning about the problems of Prevent and hypocrisy on the free speech about which they suddenly appear to care wasn't enough to render them a wholly incredible body under which to organise opposition to Prevent, their "Students Not Suspects" workshops featured Moazzam Begg from the notorious group CAGE. This is the same group whose director would not condemn FGM (after defending a preacher who believed in it), and described Mohammed Emwazi as a "beautiful young man" whose radicalisation was the fault of the security services - because evidently (at least according to CAGE) our security services are so bad they must have left him with no option but to travel to the Middle East and cut hostages' heads off on camera. More repugnant still than its working with CAGE is that the NUS - in purporting to be the "definitive national voice of students" - ultimately does this in all our names yet rather than being a ventriloquist's dummy to be voiced by near-unanimous student voices on student issues (which it would be if it took that self-declared right seriously), students instead are treated as such a dummy to advance the agenda of the NUS leadership.

Frankly, it's tempting to sit back and let the NUS leadership experience the consequences of its own worldview, with the reasons it gives for supporting the denial of other people's rights taken to their natural conclusion. Yet this would legitimise the very extra-judicial coercion the NUS and sympathetic SUs practice when they foist security costs on societies wishing to host controversial speakers (as if it's the society's job to ensure any protestors don't become violent rather than the job of the protestors themselves) and put other students under Police protection for wanting to listen to a speaker even without agreeing with them. As Lord Judge asked the guests of the 2015 Halsbury Lecture: "If you will not defend the rights of those who dislike and hate you to express their dislike and hatred, then where is any pretence of universal human rights?" Moreover, should the enforced orthodoxy one day turn against your own beliefs, who will be left to defend your own right to disagree?

In light of the above considerations, those that truly believe in free speech (and not just for those with whom they agree or sympathise) should make their voices heard about the problems with Prevent, lest the environment of Universities becomes even more hostile to free speech. Yet our voices are not those of the NUS, and we cannot risk our voices being subsumed into the NUS's cries of racial profiling and hostility towards free speech (despite their lip-service to it in this case). Therefore, the last thing free speech advocates should do when opposing Prevent is to ally with our "National" Union on the issue.

With thanks to Anastasia Tropsha for her assistance