UK anti-terror bill risks free speech on campus, say MPs

The government’s counter-terrorism and security bill is currently being rushed through parliament

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A proposed British law that would force universities to take action to stop young people being drawn into violent extremism risks “seriously inhibiting” academic debate, lawmakers warned on Monday.

The government’s counter-terrorism and security bill is currently being rushed through parliament to deal with the threat of jihadists inspired by the ISIS organization in Syria and Iraq.

Among its provisions is a new legal obligation on universities, prisons and probation services, schools and health authorities to prevent people being drawn into terrorism.

Campus authorities will be required to carry out risk assessments on visiting speakers, including checking the content of any speeches or debates beforehand, to ensure they are not promoting “extremist” or “radical” ideas.

Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights, a legislative scrutiny body, warned these terms were too vague and recommended universities be removed from the bill.

“This legal uncertainty will have a seriously inhibiting effect on bona fide academic debate in universities,” it said in a new report.

“Lecturers and students worry about whether critical discussion of fundamentalist arguments, or of the circumstances in which resort to political violence might be justified, could fall foul of the new duty.”

It added: “Universities are precisely the places where there should be open and inclusive discussion of ideas.”

The attacks last week in Paris, in which three gunmen claiming to act on behalf of the ISIS group and al-Qaeda killed 17 people, were a deadly reminder of the threat posed by the Islamist groups.

The counter-terrorism and security bill was first introduced in parliament in November and the government hopes it will receive final approval by mid-February.

As well as the measures on universities, it includes controversial new powers for border officials to confiscate the passports of people suspected of heading to fight with the ISIS group, and to temporarily ban those who have been abroad from returning home.

The joint committee said both measures should be subject to greater judicial oversight and also suggested they be allowed to expire on December 31, 2016, unless parliament agrees to renew them.

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