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Universities told to ‘manage’ pro-Palestine activism under Prevent

New guidance advises staff at British universities to “risk-assess” and “manage” campus events expressing “vocal support for Palestine” and those focused on other “contentious issues”.

A presentation on the Safe Campus Communities website follows the government’s Prevent counter-extremism strategy, which critics say censors discussion of topics that are considered controversial and suppresses freedom of expression.

“Vocal support for Palestine,” “Opposition to Israeli settlements in Gaza,” and “Criticism of wars in the Middle East” are among a list of “views that may be regarded as extremist but are not illegal”. Other potentially extremist topics include “Rise of terrorism a result of foreign policy” in addition to “Opposition to Prevent” itself.

Since 2015 Prevent has required public servants to “have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.”

The presentation advises institutions to “risk assess and manage” events where “extremist views are likely to be expressed” and ensure that they are challenged by “inviting additional speakers with opposing views.”

The material is specific to Higher Education, and is produced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), the Leadership Foundation for Higher Education, Universities UK and the defunct Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS).

Critics say the guidance shuts down free speech on controversial topics and creates a culture of censorship.

Due to concerns that it would not be “balanced,” the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan) cancelled an event organised by a Friends of Palestine society on Tuesday.

The talk, called “Debunking misconceptions on Palestine and the importance of BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions]” and scheduled to take place during “Israel Apartheid Week,” was a result of concerns that it would be anti-Semitic and unlawful.

In a statement, UCLan said the event contravened the government’s 2016 definition of anti-Semitism as proposed by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, which defines anti-Semitism as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, eg by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavour”.

“We believe the proposed talk contravenes the new definition and furthermore breaches university protocols for such events, where we require assurances of a balanced view or a panel of speakers representing all interests,” a university spokesperson said.

Ben White, contributor to Middle East Eye, was due to attend the event.

“It is clear from social media posts, as well as an earlier statement issued by the university, that officials caved to pressure from pro-Israel groups, and in so doing, threw their students – and their right to freedom of expression – under a bus,” he said.

Ben Jamal, Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, told MEE that given support for a Palestinian state and the opposition to settlements in “all major political parties in the UK and the overwhelming majority of governments across the world,” it is “absurd to define these as extremist views.”

The training material itself acknowledges concerns about the government’s efforts to define extremism, conceding that “the government definition of extremism is considered by some to be somewhat vague.”

“It is the difficulty in defining what is and what isn’t extremist that has led people to be concerned that the Prevent duty constitutes a threat to academic freedom/freedom of expression.”

A statement from HEFCE regarding the material said that “Rather than undermining freedom of speech, it in fact does the opposite.”

“These are topics that may come up for discussion on campus, and should be allowed to be debated in a safe environment on campus as part of a commitment to freedom of speech.”

Sally Hunt, general secretary of the University and College Union, said the Prevent Duty “risked doing more harm than good by shutting down debate on contentious topics and creating mistrust between teachers and students”.

University staff are warned in the training guidance that while opposition to Prevent is “permissible,” they would be breaking the law by boycotting the Prevent Duty.

There have been multiple instances across the UK where students have been subjected to exceptional scrutiny as a result of the Prevent strategy.

Postgraduate student of counter-terrorism Mohammed Umar Farooq received an apology from Staffordshire University after he was questioned under Prevent in 2015 after being seen reading a book entitled Terrorism Studies in the university library.

In January, King’s College London admitted to monitoring students’ emails.

This followed a year after KCL, Queen Mary, SOAS and Kingston were described by former Prime Minister David Cameron as hosts to “hate preachers”.

In 2016, 140 academics signed an open letter criticising the methodology behind Prevent.

Last year, the “Students Not Suspects” protest campaign organised by the UCU and NUS demanded the abolition of Prevent and accused the government of using the strategy to restrict civil liberties and stifle political dissent.

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Kyle Hoekstra