Free speech is under threat from dangerous new ‘anti-terrorism’ plans that would force Christian Unions to hand over talks to be monitored for ‘extremist ideas’.
Parliament is currently examining the Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which compels certain bodies to try and stop people being “drawn into terrorism”. Those deemed to have failed to comply could be subject to a court order.
But guidance on how this duty should be fulfilled uses alarmingly vague terms, which could easily be used to restrict Christians’ freedom of expression.
Universities and further education colleges are told they must “take seriously their responsibility to exclude those promoting extremist views that support or are conducive to terrorism”.
This would involve societies, including Christian Unions, being forced to hand over presentations to be vetted and submit names of speakers to be checked weeks in advance, whilst risking their events being cancelled by university authorities.
The guidance defines extremism as “opposition to fundamental ‘British values'”. Universities are expected to encourage students to respect others, paying “particular regard to the protected characteristics under the Equality Act 2010″, which include homosexuality and transsexualism.
Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights has raised concerns about the Bill’s effect on freedom of expression, warning that the “legal uncertainty” about the definition of ‘extremist’ “will have a seriously inhibiting effect on bona fide academic debate”.
Their report referred to comments made by the Chief Constable of Greater Manchester Police, Sir Peter Fahy, who said too much discretion is given to the police to decide, “in the heat of the moment”, what counts as “extremism”.
The Committee recommended that universities be exempt from the requirements of the proposals.
During a House of Lords debate on the Bill, Liberal Democrat Peer Lord Roberts of Llandudno said: “The vagueness of what is termed extremism means that the powers that the Home Secretary is granting herself could be applied to rooting out any idea she chooses”.
And crossbench Peer Baroness Manningham-Buller, former Director General of MI5, said: “The Government may be able to convince me but I cannot see how legislation can really govern hearts, minds and free speech.
“We can legislate against activity – the actions that people take can be detected, prosecuted and brought to court – but this I find much more difficult. We already have legislation on incitement to violence”, she added.
Writing in the Daily Mail, commentator Peter Hitchens argued that the terminology is “so vague” that it could include “almost anybody with views outside the mainstream”.
He said: “Using the excuse of terrorism – whose main victim is considered thought – Theresa May’s Home Office is making a law which attacks free expression in this country as it has never been attacked before.”
The Government is currently consulting on the guidance, which would cover local authorities, the NHS, the police, prisons, schools, colleges and universities.
Last year, the Home Secretary came under fire over Conservative plans for ‘Extremist Disruption Orders’, which could threaten free speech.
Christians and atheists jointly warned that anyone who criticises same-sex marriage or Sharia law could be branded an ‘extremist’ under the proposed new powers, to be included in the Tory party manifesto.