Preventing extremism or silencing debate?

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“I don’t agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
Evelyn Beatrice Hall, summarising Voltaire’s philosophy

Free speech is a widely debated topic in various schools of thought, with many questions about where the line is drawn between free speech and hate speech. What should people be allowed to say, especially around young, impressionable people? The possibility that giving extremists a platform may radicalise younger people is, understandably, a concern for the government. So it’s understandable that something like the Prevent strategy exists.

Prevent is a part of the national counter-terrorism strategy aimed at places of education, from nurseries to universities, which aims to inform these institutions of ways to prevent the spread of extremist ideas, keeping young people safe from these radical influences. Or so it is said.

When I first heard about Prevent, it sounded like another step in the direction of silencing anyone who the government didn’t agree with. Another way of stopping much-needed debates about possibly controversial issues. I saw this as a huge problem specifically for universities, places where debate and discussion should be encouraged, even when the topic was controversial.

I found this view wasn’t mine alone – over 40 academics worldwide signed an open letter back in July outlining their issues with Prevent, such as their concern that it will be used to silence those who are undeserving of it. The letter also advised the government to take an ‘approach based on dialogue and openness’, instead of silencing conversation.

I still have these worries about the misuse of Prevent, especially in universities. However, reading the reviewed guidance for higher education institutions partly eased these concerns. For example, it is not solely up to the government to determine who shouldn’t be allowed to talk at university events. Universities themselves are the ones who decide on the process they use to determine which external speakers are allowed to talk.

Also, even if an external speaker seems to have extremist views, they may still be allowed to speak – as long as opposing arguments are simultaneously presented. As long as the university is sure that the risk of radicalisation can be almost if not fully diminished, then more ‘extremist’ talkers may not be completely silenced as I first thought.

Despite these positive points, there are some which keep the fears of misuse embedded in my mind. Teresa May, Home Secretary and the main proponent of new counter-terrorism measures such as Prevent, wants to tackle non-violent extremists as well as violent ones. This seems sensible when you consider the possibility that non-violent extremists can inspire violent actions in others. But who counts as a non-violent extremist? Those who have significantly different political views and values to the current government? If that’s the case, and as shown many people think it is, fears of the misuse of Prevent are more than justified.

People across the political spectrum could be labelled as extremists, leading to unnecessary censorship in the name of preventing extremism. Students won’t be protected from extremist ideas, they’ll be prevented from hearing from anyone who doesn’t have an ‘acceptable’ mainstream opinion.

Yes, the guidelines say that controversial topics may be discussed in universities as long as opposing views are also presented. Yes, there are legitimate concerns about the radicalisation of young people. Yes, extremist ideas should never go unchallenged. But Prevent doesn’t just stop extremists and radicalisation. It has already hindered and stopped important talks and discussions that provide opinions and insights on topical issues. Opinions and insights that the government may not agree with, or want people to consider. And I can’t help but feel that this wasn’t just an accidental side effect.

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