The counter terror and security bill and the silencing of critical thought

An FBI wanted poster for 'terrorist' Angela Davis

Written by Remi Joseph-Salisbury

A bill put forward by the Home Secretary, Theresa May, received royal assent yesterday. The bill will introduce wide ranging and punitive measures that, are at least purported to, help the state quell the threat of terror.

All this occurs in the context of an ever-increasing moral panic, perpetuated by racist and sensationalist media outlets, around terror and the apparent threat that Islam presents to the nation. It should come as no surprise that there is an increase in the reporting of alleged terror plots at the very time the bill is due to be passed. This scaremongering is fundamental to the government’s agenda.

Much of the bill should cause concern. The bill acts to give the state greater authority to regulate the lives of individuals. Given the lack of diversity amongst those in charge, it is easy to see how the bill is a threat to diverse lives and communities in Britain and how political resistance will be controlled to create a greater monopoly on governmental power.

Section five, with implications for higher education, is one area of the bill in which problems manifest. The bill places a legal obligation on universities to monitor and challenge extremism. The problem here arises in the malleability of extremism as a concept. The definition will again come from a predominantly white, male, middle-class, government that seeks to move towards a silencing of any political resistance or agitation. History shows us that revolutionary figures - now the heroes of many - have often been branded ‘dangerous extremists’; Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Darcus Howe, the list goes on.

The bill has been met with strong opposition from academics, cross-parliamentary MPs, and human rights activists. From a university standpoint, the bill will place a huge administrative burden on staff, essentially making academic staff state-pawns in the project to silence oppositional thought. The bill will allow state regulation over which voices are heard on campus; this is undoubtedly a slippery slope that will further marginalise non-white voices. In 1969 Angela Davis was sacked from her post as Assistant Professor at UCLA because of her political beliefs. After a judge ruled against the sacking, the university - under pressure from the then state governor Ronald Reagan – found ever more creative ways to dismiss Davis. Eventually the now world-renowned scholar and political activist was sacked for her use of inflammatory language, seemingly running against the very principles of academic freedom. There are clear and noteworthy parallels which can be drawn between the contemporaneous scaremongering of the communist and Black Panther parties and the scaremongering of Islam and dissenting voices today.

The present bill is at direct odds with such principles of freedom of speech, thought and dialogue. These are fundamental principles to be upheld in higher education. Further, the University and Colleges Union have stated that the bill places an unachievable and vague duty upon university staff.

University campuses must be upheld as a space for critical thought and debate. Critical thought and political resistance are imperative if we are to avoid a decline towards a more authoritarian dictatorship.

The principle of academic freedom is a duty of universities as outlined under the Education (No 2) Act 1986 and this new counter terror legislation appears to stand in direct opposition to this. Whilst amendments to the bill have now suggested that there must also be a consideration of academic freedom alongside the obligation to tackle extremism, the problems remain. How free is freedom if it is restricted by white, middle-class definitions of extremism? We must guard against the silencing of dissenting voices.

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