On February 12th, Royal Assent was given to the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act 2015, put forward by the Home Secretary Theresa May, making it an Act of Parliament and thus law.
The Counter-Terrorism Act, among other things, is designed to prevent University students becoming extremists, as it requires universities to monitor and report students with ‘extremist opinions’, and gives universities the power to ban speakers with opinions from attending on-campus events and ‘off-campus events promoted on-campus’.
Home Secretary has been given the authority to force universities to comply with the regulations, and where necessary, if a university fails to fulfill its responsibility to monitor extremism, the Home Secretary can issue mandatory orders to ensure that it does. Critics have argued that this move effectively undermines the right of universities to self-govern. Guidelines also specify that fourteen days notice is required of guest speakers attending university campuses, as well as prior notice of what those speakers intend to say in their speeches. .
Glasgow University Student Representative Council (SRC) has expressed concerns that the Act could jeopardize staff-student relations and has stated its intention to protect civil liberties by actively helping to shape any Codes of Practice that result from the Counter-Terrorism Act. The SRC has previously told the Glasgow Guardian that defining an ‘off-campus event’ is problematic because it would be ‘extremely intrusive and difficult to police’. Members of the SRC recently met with the Scottish Violent Extremism Unit to express their concerns and were reassured that the Act was being interpreted in Scotland as a ‘safeguard’ for vulnerable individuals.
Critics are concerned that however the Scottish Government chooses to interpret the Act, it has the potential to undermines freedom of speech on university campuses. During her recent interview with the Glasgow Guardian, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon accepted that the guidelines set out in the Act should not be overbearing, stressing that a balance had to be struck between preventing people from inciting violent extremism on university campuses and safeguarding civil liberties. She said: “governments have got a duty to keep their populations as safe as possible” but, did not address the issue of academic freedom and the possibility of creating mistrust between students and university staff, who have a statutory obligation to monitor the views expressed by students and guest speakers on campus.
Concerns that the Bill, if passed into law, would undermine academic freedom were raised a month ago in the House of Lords by Baroness Manningham-Buller, the former Director General of MI5. Manningham-Buller told peers that: “It is a profound irony in seeking to protect our values against this pernicious ideology we are trying to bar views too vaguely described as non-violent extremism’, which highlights the difficulty of adequately defining ‘non-violent extremism’ without infringing upon the rights of individuals to free speech.