The former head of the civil service, Lord Butler of Brockwell, has spoken out against the government for “treating universities like schools” during his criticism of Home Secretary Theresa May’s new plans to ban extremists from speaking on university campuses.
Lord Butler, who led Whitehall for a decade and went on to become the Master of University College, Oxford, for another, voiced his opinion that May’s proposals have gone “too far” in limiting free speech, adding that university students are adults who have a right to form their own opinions on important issues based on a number of different perspectives.
“Universities have a duty of care to their students to stop them breaking the law,” Lord Butler commented on Sky’s Murnaghan programme, “But they’ve also got a legal obligation to encourage free speech within the law.
“Schools have got a duty to teach children what’s right and what’s wrong… but universities are dealing with young adults. The whole point of university is that they should have a good deal of freedom to hear different opinions and make up their own minds on what’s right or wrong.”
May’s anti-extremist proposal, which has reportedly been designed to give Britain the “toughest powers in the world” against terrorism, will be put before Parliament this week in the form of the counter-terrorism and security bill.
A number of peers, including the former head of MI5, the former Conservative Party chairman and the former director of public prosecutions, are keen to include a clause specifically excluding universities from restrictions which place responsibility with schools and colleges to report firebrand Islamist speakers.
According to Lord Butler, “radicalisation is much more likely to go on over coffee in students’ rooms than at public meetings.
“I think it’s very likely,” he added, “that this week there will be an amendment to exclude universities… I hope that the government will write into the law alongside it the duty to allow free speech, and that they will look extremely carefully at the directions they are giving under this new law.”
Lady Manningham-Buller, who previously held the role of director general of the security service, warned Theresa May that banning peaceful extremist views from universities goes against the duty of educational establishments to encourage and protect free speech.
Speaking before peers, she said: “It is a profound irony that we are seeking to protect our values against this pernicious ideology by trying to bar views that are described, too vaguely, as ‘non-violent’ extremism, but which fall short of incitement to violence or to racial or ethnic hatred, which is already forbidden by law.”
Former director of public prosecutions Lord Macdonald added his voice to the discussions, commenting that the guidance to be included in May’s new counter-terrorism and security bill would turn universities into places “of surveillance”.
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