You can't stop speech, but you can push it underground


mayJust a few months after a very public fight with Lord Macdonald over control orders, Theresa May is back in the news with controversial – even inflammatory – comments regarding Islamic extremism at English universities.

In an interview with the Telegraph, Ms May charged universities with “complacency” vis-à-vis the hotbeds of Islamic terrorism that are their Muslim students’ associations and Islamic Studies departments. She announced that the Home Office had identified 40 English universities as being at “particular risk” of Islamic extremism. In addition to other measures, the Home Office will push for restricting access to extremist websites from public buildings. “I don’t see anything wrong with identifying people who are vulnerable to being taken down a certain route, who could become a threat to members of the public.” If you’ve got nothing to hide, you’ve got nothing to worry about?

The problem with universities, May said, is that they have not “been sufficiently willing to recognise what can be happening on their campuses and the radicalisation that can take place.” Hence the supposed need for government intervention.

Students, radical? You don’t say. But there is neither a legitimate government role in preventing radical speech nor necessarily causality between such speech and violence. Most charitably, this is a misguided attempt on the part of Government to “protect” the public – by infringing upon freedoms of speech and of association. Less generously, May’s comments seem to conflate Muslim students’ associations and terrorist cells.

Universities are, ideally, centres of free thought; it seems particularly perverse to limit freedom of speech at schools. Worse still is the overbroad definition of extremism. Ms May intends to target any group that may serve as a “stepping stone” to terrorism. One can only imagine that the litmus test for “stepping stone” status is as expansive as Potter Stewart’s threshold for pornography.

The measures May has proposed will merely add vitriol to the rhetoric she seeks to discourage. Singling out Islamic student groups as not holding what May calls “our values” is almost certain to alienate their members. This only makes students more likely to turn to violence. It would be far better to preserve freedoms and allow organic integration than to force speech underground.