Anti-terror laws risk 'chilling effect' on academic debate – Oxford college head

Ken Macdonald, a former director of public prosecutions, warns government Prevent strategy may stifle free speech and university research

The government’s anti-terrorism laws aimed at universities risk having a “chilling effect” on academic debate and a “deadening impact” on research, according to a former director of public prosecutions.

Ken Macdonald, warden of Wadham College, Oxford, said while it was fair to ask universities to curb attempts to radicalise or recruit students, the government’s anti-radicalisation strategy, Prevent, could be abused to stifle otherwise legal debate.

“The Prevent duty goes far beyond [existing] constraints. It requires a university to do much more than to report a terrorist in the nest if we can possibly find one.

“Read literally, it envisages a future in which people might be constrained from arguing, in a university of all places, that democracy is wrong in principle – goodbye Plato,” Macdonald told a seminar in Oxford last week.

He said Prevent endangers freedom of speech and research in universities. “One is forced to contemplate a level of uncertainty that plainly risks a chilling effect on intellectual discourse and exchange, not to mention a deadening impact upon research into difficult contemporary questions,” he said.

Macdonald – a barrister, whose role as director of public prosecutions between 2003 and 2008 made him one of the most senior legal figures in England and Wales – said under the government’s guidance “the list of unacceptable topics might plausibly include much philosophical discourse, any Marxist analysis of a supposed class basis for our rule of law, and many atheist deconstructions of religion”.

David Cameron argued in a speech in September that the new law is “not about oppressing free speech or stifling academic freedom, it is about making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish.

“Schools, universities and colleges, more than anywhere else, have a duty to protect impressionable young minds.”

Last year the government’s extremism analysis unit claimed at least 70 events featuring hate speakers were held on campuses.

But Macdonald disputed the reach of the new legislation: “It would seem to be a grave mistake for universities to collude in any way in the closing down of discussion, or to indulge a government that wants them to regulate, or even to ban, speech on campus that isn’t otherwise remotely criminal.”

The government’s decision to pick out universities such as University College London and King’s College, London, was “ unfair, ignorant and philistine,” according to Macdonald, after Downing Street named them as having students who had been “at least partially radicalised” during their time studying.

“My own view is that our new vice-chancellor, Professor Louise Richardson, was absolutely right to say recently that she would not hesitate, with the provision of counter argument, to have an organisation like Cage speaking at Oxford,” Macdonald said, adding: “I wouldn’t hesitate either.”

Last year Cameron said the National Union of Students had shamed itself for its links with Cage, a group that says it campaigns for the victims of “the war on terror”.

Macdonald – who lead the Crown Prosecution Service as DPP – said university leaders had a potential defence against the restrictions of last year’s Counter-terrorism and Security Act, thanks to explicit legal obligations to promote free speech dating back to the Thatcher era.

“The public importance naturally accorded to a university’s statutory obligation to maintain freedom of speech and academic freedom would be accorded very significant weight by any court considering an application for a mandatory order under the [Counter-terrorism and Security] Act,” he said.

“It seems clear that an ability on the part of a university to show that it has considered the risks of a particular piece of research, and balanced those risks against the importance of free academic inquiry, will be sufficient to render its conduct compliant.”

But Macdonald agreed that universities have a role in tackling radicalisation among young people.

“We have passed into a world where some young men and women have graduated not in history or maths, but from ‘terror porn’ on the internet to the real thing in Syria and Iraq. This matters a great deal, specially when they decide, if they survive, to come home.

“In this context, it is at least arguable that universities should have some mechanisms allowing them at least to identify people at risk, and to mitigate that risk where it occurs.”


Richard Adams Education editor

The GuardianTramp

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