Maria Theodoulou,  Partner at Stokoe Partnership Solicitors, examines the recently announced Counter-Extremism Bill and its impact on public freedoms for Solicitors Journal.

This article has been published in Solicitors Journal, June 14th 2016, and is reproduced by kind permission.

Read Maria’s article on the Solicitors Journal website here.

Counter-Extremism Bill: A plot to censor public freedoms?

An all-encompassing, ill-defined, and overly controlling attempt to tackle extremism is counterintuitive and doomed to failure, writes Maria Theodoulou.

The Counter-Extremism Bill, unveiled in the Queen’s Speech, has come under attack from many different sections of society. The Bill seeks to tackle extremist ideology by banning all forms of ‘extremist speech’; however, the government has so far failed to produce a workable definition of ‘extremism’, or at least enough of a definition to make it clear why a new law is, in fact, needed.

Condemned by a coalition of opponents, the Bill is a clear bid by the government to curb Islamic fundamentalist thought. It has, though, been hidden behind the thin veil of ensuring the country’s safety against all forms of extremism.

While the eradication of extremist ideology is clearly an admirable goal, such an all-encompassing, ill-defined, and overly controlling attempt to tackle the problem is counterintuitive and doomed to failure. Attacks on British values from fundamentalist speakers would easily be modified from lengthy and heated explanations of exactly what they feel is wrong with western democracies to a simple shrug and the words ‘see what I mean?’.

Twenty-six organisations – including Rights Watch (UK), the National Union of Students, and the Muslim Council of Britain – have slammed the proposals, claiming they will ‘alienate communities and undermine free speech’. It is the lack of any definition for ‘extremism’ that poses the biggest threat, with the coalition stating: ‘That the government is struggling to define “extremism” should be a clear indication this legislation has no place in a liberal democracy.’

The problem at the heart of this proposed legislation is that its attempt to use the law to stop the spread of extremist ideology will have the opposite effect, marginalising certain communities and making them more vulnerable to extremist ideas. Liberal Democrat MP Alistair Carmichael stated that ‘the government is threatening… the very fabric of our multicultural society’.

The Bill also serves to undermine freedoms that are integral to the British way of life. Simon Cole, the police officer in charge of the government’s anti-radicalisation programme ‘Prevent’, has claimed that the Bill could result in a ‘thought police’ being created, something more readily associated with North Korea and other dictatorships than liberal democracies. It is another step towards establishing a regime that infringes on individual freedoms, much in the same way that other proposed legislation, including the ‘Snoopers’ Charter’, seeks to further restrict our human rights. While extremism is a major problem, is it worth signing away all our liberties?

The campaign against Islamic fundamentalism – the key driving force behind all of the recent lurches toward ever more prohibitive legislation – will censor public freedoms. The government should seek to challenge extremist speech through open discourse, not ban it outright. In turn, the government must safeguard the public’s freedom of speech, a fundamental human right, and not shift towards censoring it. In a truly damning statement, the 26 organisations said that the Bill ‘will feed the very commodity that the terrorists thrive on: fear’.