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Government may back-track on protecting free speech in universities

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Last month, the Government responded to concerns over the impact of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015 on 'freedom of expression' in universities by introducing a new clause into the Act and promising to re-draft proposed guidance. However, media reports now suggest that the Government may be planning to back-track on its promise.

In January, the Home Office published draft guidance to accompany the Act that could mean university and college authorities would have to monitor the activities of university campus groups such as Christian Unions, approving events and vetting talks and presentations in advance.

Academics and members of the House of Lords (such as former MI5 chief, Baroness Manningham-Buller) raised concerns, as had many Christians, about the adverse effect of the proposed reforms on the free speech of university Christian Unions groups.

In response, the Government promised that it would “rework” the draft guidance to ensure that the freedom of expression of CUs will not be impacted. Home Secretary Theresa May told the House of Commons that the proposals were not intended to have any effect on “benign” organisations such as CUs. She later clarified that the final version of the guidance will not make it “necessary” for CUs to submit the speeches and presentations of external speakers for vetting in advance.

However, the media is now reporting public disagreement between Conservative and Lib Dem Ministers over the wording of the guidance, with confusion about how “extremism” should be defined and the type of external speakers that the Government is really seeking to ban from university campuses.

Andrea Williams of Christian Concern said: “This is a hugely concerning development. The Christian Union movement has worked successfully for over 90 years, during which no incident has been reported of CU meetings being used to radicalise students. The free speech of such groups shouldn’t be undermined in an attempt to counter Islamist threats, particularly given that the mainstream teachings of the Christian faith have no relevance to terrorism. It is vital that the Government names and addresses the real problem, namely the radicalisation of students by Muslim extremist groups.

“The Government will be aware that the radicalisation of young people by Islamist groups has taken place on university campuses for many years. The Government will have details of universities that have been used for such purposes, and the names of Islamic extremist organisations that have been operating on university campuses. The Government has a responsibility to name, target and eradicate these influences. It also has a duty to protect groups that are peaceable and bring great benefit and variety to student life - namely Christian Unions.”

Related News:
Bibles at risk at Welsh university
Government to revise 'CU vetting' guidance
Christian Union talks could be 'vetted'

Related Coverage:
University professors decry Theresa May’s campus anti-terrorism bill (Guardian)
Ex-MI5 head warns of anti-terror plan for universities (BBC)