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22 January 2015

New threat to religious liberty and free speech in universities

We have recently become aware that the government is intending to rush through dangerous new legislation under the guise of commitment to so-called 'British values' and guidance relating to anti-extremism. The Home Office is calling it a 'Prevent Duty' but it could well impact cherished civil liberties.

This time it is universities that are likely to be affected. 

New draft government guidance will effectively require university authorities to vet visiting speakers' talks and presentational materials for Christian Union meetings. Such proposals will convey blanket powers for universities to censor all outside speakers. Whilst aimed at all external presenters this will also provide the means for those hostile to Christian beliefs to obstruct the operation of Christian groups such as CUs, several of which have already been a target in recent years. Even the sermons of speakers at carol services will be caught by the proposals.

You can access a copy of the government's proposals onlineThese also contain a consultation which must be responded to by 30 January.

If you can, please write to your MP before this date. If you are also able to respond to the consultation itself by completing the responses contained within it or by writing a letter to the Home Office (address on page 4 of the consultation) it is vitally important to let the government know how strongly the public feel about the implications of what they are proposing.

You may wish to include some of the following points:

  • The Prevent duty guidance must be revised to protect the free speech of university Christian Unions as well as others;
  • handing university officials the power to censor talks by church leaders cannot be justified in a country committed to freedom of speech;
  • the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Human Rights has itself objected to the proposed requirements for universities and has asked for universities to be excluded from these new anti-extremism measures;
  • Christian teachings have nothing to do with terrorism and it is a complete overreaction to penalise Christian freedoms under the imperative of tackling Islamist threats;
  • the so-called fundamental 'British values' set out by the government are too vague and too broad. They can be interpreted to include as 'extremists' those with traditional peaceful values;
  • Christian Unions are an established part of campus life and the proposals threaten their freedom to operate. 

This measure forms part of a familiar pattern now whereby:

    1. Terrorists terrorise
    2. Media misreport
    3. Politicians politicise
    4. Governments overreact
    5. Freedoms diminish.

This unacceptable pattern must be broken, not least because longstanding and law-abiding religious groups should not be repressed by state.

We appreciate this is very short notice but thank you for your concern.