On the first day of Freshers’ Week, Lancaster University’s students’ union president got a message that police were photographing two posters in her office window. One said “Not for Shale”, the other: “End Israel’s attacks on Gaza”.
“A union officer asked [the police] why the photos were being taken and was told that I was potentially committing a public order offence,” says Laura Clayson, 24.Oh dear. Were you scared and intimidated?
Clayson, who is also an environmental activist, was even more worried when the officer said he “knew of my ‘history’ … I felt like the whole incident was an intimidation tactic, reinforced by this reference to my past.”Gosh! You must have felt a bit like the poor bloody working stiffs who have to pass the gauntlet of yelling rent-a-mob protestors, then? I wonder if you learned anything from that?
It’s the sort of incident, with overtones of surveillance and threat, that concerns both students and academics. And now the home secretary, Theresa May, has said that under the terms of the new counter-terrorism bill, universities must have “due regard … to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, or they could face court orders compelling them to do so. Many academics are worried that this bill is expecting too much of universities, and could clash with one of their guiding principles: to encourage the free expression and analysis of ideas, no matter how unpleasant.Oh, if only universities still did that. Instead, these days, they mostly seem to cower behind ‘free speech zones’ and worry about ‘trigger words’, as David Thompson so masterfully points out.
Dr Simon Mabon, director for politics and international relations at Lancaster, says: “A university is supposed to be a forum where people can develop critical tools that enable them to criticise the orthodoxy, and that can lead into some unpalatable areas. Then we would engage with them, in lectures and in seminars where students are challenged by other students and their tutors … I don’t think it’s the government’s place to tell universities what can and can’t be talked about.”Well, why shouldn’t they have a go? You seem to be letting the students tell you what should and shouldn’t be discussed, after all?
May’s bill aims “to have a chilling effect – that is one of its objectives,” says Cardiff University’s Prof Michael Levi, a criminologist who has studied the financing of terrorism. “One of the things this will lead to is more intensive monitoring of societies within universities.”About time, frankly.
There is, Feldman points out, no right to unfettered freedom of expression – but judging when to curb it is a delicate matter. And legislation is rarely delicate or subtle. “I might run around campus nude, and say it’s my right to express myself. But that’s not acceptable. If someone wants to take an immoderate position on Israel or Palestine, should I accept that the same restriction applies? Throwing bombs is obviously not acceptable, but trafficking ‘unacceptable’ ideas, what about that? They are just ideas.”And when you take that attitude about all such ideas, I’ll take you seriously.
Until then, I’ll just point and laugh as the petard you’ve constructed goes off in your face.