When you have an overreaching government "anti-terrorism" program tasked with countering violent ideological messages, anything that rubs officialdom the wrong way starts looking like extremist propaganda, ripe for intervention. That includes, it turns out, a standard-issue lefty reading-assignment at England's University of Reading: Cautious about how the message might be perceived, school officials warned students reading Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution "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" so as to avoid the attention of the "Prevent" program.
Part of a larger anti-terrorism strategy, Prevent was designed to prevent radicalization and seeks to monitor supposedly vulnerable people for evidence of extremism in the materials they peruse and the ideology they express. The idea is that, once identified, these individuals can be steered by authorities away from negative outcomes. "Interventions can include mentoring, counselling, theological support, encouraging civic engagement, developing support networks (family and peer structures) or providing mainstream services (education, employment, health, finance or housing)," according to the official strategy statement.
Primarily targeted at potential recruits to Islamist terrorist groups, but also at Northern Ireland-style sectarian violence and extreme right-wing terrorism, Prevent suffered mission-creep pretty much right out of the gate. In 2015, a politics student at the University of East Anglia was interrogated by police after reading assigned material in an ISIS-related publication.
"The university can confirm that a politics student taking the Clash of Fundamentalisms module was questioned last week after clicking on a link to a website," school officials said at the time. "The site analyses and challenges the publications of extremist ideologies. The legitimate academic study of such causes is fundamental to countering them, however this particular link has now been removed from the course materials."
A similar case arose at Staffordshire University when a postgraduate student was questioned for reading a textbook on terrorism in the college library. Concerned about ending up on a watch list, he hired a lawyer and dropped the course.
Prevent officials have demanded membership lists from university Islamic groups, creating a climate of "fear, suspicion, and censorship," according to reports. With ample reason, the students worry that they're being "spied upon."
Some professors are now running reading assignments past the authorities—"just in case there was anything too critical"—in hopes of avoiding more examples of students being hauled in for doing their homework.
Younger students are being scooped up for alleged radicalization, too. In 2016-17, 272 children under 15 years of age and 328 youngsters between ages 15 and 20 were flagged under the Prevent program "over suspected right-wing terrorist beliefs." The proportion of individuals referred to government officials "as a result of far-right concerns has risen from a quarter in 2015 to 2016 to over a third in 2016 to 2017," according to Britain's Home Office, so that likely represents only a fraction of young people questioned and "mentored" for their suspected ideological deviance.
Where do these referrals come from? Well, anybody can contact the authorities, but the situation is complicated by the duty the law imposes on both public and private institutions to report people seen as being at risk of radicalization, with very little guidance as to what that means beyond cover-your-ass. The imposition of the duty resulted in a surge in referrals by schools to the authorities.
Civil libertarians worry that the law has Britons far beyond schools looking over their shoulders and watching what they say. "Prevent has been widely criticised for fostering discrimination against people of Muslim faith or background and chilling legitimate expression," eight human rights groups cautioned in a joint statement released just last week.
"Laws such as this restrict the core democratic right to freedom of expression," a legal analysis published last year in the Utrecht Journal of International and European Law charges. It "indicates a concerning trend of liberal States embracing opportunities to impose severe restrictions on 'extreme' speech."
As the example of students interrogated for reading their assignments shows, the definition of "extreme" speech gets very slippery when government officials are looking for something to do—and when people required to inform-or-else on violators make reports to keep themselves out of trouble.
Some British lawmakers have called for a review of the Prevent program, especially in light of its chilling effect on speech in schools and universities. "The potentially conflicting duties on universities to promote free speech, whilst precluding the expression of extremist views, is likely to continue to cause confusion," the U.K. Parliament's Joint Committee on Human Rights warned in 2016. "We believe that free speech is precious, particularly in universities, and should not be undermined."
But government in the U.K. is much like government in the United States—given evidence of abuses and overreach, officials are more likely to double down than to admit error. Parliament is currently considering a Counter Terrorism and Border Security Bill that would go beyond monitoring people for extremist ideology and hauling them in for questioning. The proposed legislation would criminalize voicing support for banned organizations, and even make it illegal to view or otherwise access information "likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing acts of terrorism."
That click on a link that got university students interrogated in recent years could instead land them in jail. Their freedom would then be dependent on convincing a court that they had an undefined "reasonable excuse" for reading articles and watching videos that prosecutors and police don't like.
Good luck with that. And good luck to free speech advocates in the UK; hopefully, their anti-censorship views won't be deemed too extremist anytime soon.
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