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Prevent strategy guidelines for UK universities deemed unlawful, court rules

Salman Butt vows to continue legal fight over 'secretive harvesting of data' by Home Office's Extremism Analysis Unit
Muslim writer Salman Butt filed a complaint against the guidelines in 2017 (Reuters)

The UK government's guidelines for speakers on university campuses, part of the wider Prevent counter-extremism strategy, have been deemed unlawful and must be re-written, a British court has ruled.

The ruling, issued on Friday by a three-judge panel at the UK Court of Appeal, responds to a claim originally brought in 2017 by Muslim writer Salman Butt against the Higher Education Prevent Duty Guidance (HEPDG).

Butt argued that the HEPDG's guidelines on inviting "controversial" speakers to UK university campuses were unbalanced and put pressure on universities to cancel events if there was any risk of radicalisation.

He said after the ruling that the HEPDG had had a "chilling" effect on student Islamic societies at universities and threatened free speech.

"I am glad that as a result of today's judgment this will now stop, and that Muslim students in particular need not be afraid of inviting speakers and scholars previously smeared by Islamophobic organisations," said Butt.

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But Butt said he planned to take his legal fight to the Supreme Court after the three judges unanimously rejected his appeal challenging the lawfulness of the government's collection of data about him, which he described as the "secretive large-scale collection, harvesting and storage of citizens' social media data using sophisticated, automated technology".

"This is of grave importance for all of us in the 21st century, and deeply worrying that the reach and power wielded by such intrusive surveillance in the digital age is so extensive," he said.

The data was collected by the government's Extremism Analysis Unit, which is based within the Home Office and tasked with collecting information about people and organisations deemed to be extremist both in the UK and abroad.

Butt argued that the collection of data violated his right to a private right under Article 8 of the European Conventions on Human Rights, but the court ruled he had no reasonable expectation of privacy over material made public by him and which he wished to communicate to others.

It also said that the "scant material" held on Butt by the EAU did not constitute a systematic record in the sense required to engage Article 8".

In their judgement on the Prevent Duty guidelines for universities, the judges said it had failed to uphold the need for free speech on campuses and should be re-written by the government.

What is the Prevent Strategy?

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Prevent is a programme within the British government's counter-terrorism strategy that aims to “safeguard and support those vulnerable to radicalisation, to stop them from becoming terrorists or supporting terrorism”.

It was publicly launched in the aftermath of the 2005 London bombings and was initially targeted squarely at Muslim communities, prompting continuing complaints of discrimination and concerns that the programme was being used to collect intelligence.

In 2011, Prevent's remit was expanded to cover all forms of extremism, defined by the government as “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

In 2015, the government introduced the Prevent Duty which requires public sector workers including doctors, teachers and even nursery staff to have “due regard to the need to prevent people being drawn into terrorism”.

A key element of Prevent is Channel, a programme that offers mentoring and support to people assessed to be at risk of becoming terrorists. Prevent referrals of some young children have proved contentious. 114 children under the age of 15 received Channel support in 2017/18.

Criticism of the Prevent Duty includes that it has had a “chilling effect” on free speech in classrooms and universities, and that it has turned public sector workers into informers who are expected to monitor pupils and patients for “signs of radicalisation”. Some critics have said that it may even be counter-productive.

Advocates argue that it is a form of safeguarding that has been effective in identifying and helping troubled individuals. They point to a growing number of far-right referrals as evidence that it is not discriminatory against Muslims.

In January 2019 the government bowed to pressure and announced that it would commission an independent review of Prevent. This was supposed to be completed by August 2020. After being forced to drop its first appointed reviewer, Lord Carlile, over his past advocacy for Prevent, it conceded that the review would be delayed.

In January 2021 it named William Shawcross as reviewer. Shawcross's appointment was also contentious and prompted many organisations to boycott the review. Further delays followed. Shawcross's review, calling for a renewed focus within Prevent on "the Islamist threat", was finally published in February 2023 - and immediately denounced by critics. 

Paragraph 11 of the guidelines states that relevant higher-education bodies (RHEBs) "should consider carefully whether the views being expressed, or likely to be expressed, constitute extremist views that risk drawing people into terrorism or are shared by terrorist groups" when deciding whether to host speakers.

The RHEBs should only allow such events to proceed when they "are entirely convinced that such risk can be fully mitigated", the paragraph continues.

"Where RHEBs are in any doubt that the risk cannot be fully mitigated they should exercise caution and not allow the event to proceed," it says.

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Butt brought the case to court after a government press release relating to updated Prevent guidelines referred to him as an "extremist speaker".

In the press release, the Extremism Analysis Unit referred to Butt as a speaker who was "on record as expressing views contrary to British values".

Butt said that, prior to appearing in the press release, no government agency in the UK had given him any indication that they were concerned about his views.

Saimo Chahal, Butt's lawyer, welcomed the Court of Appeal's ruling in a statement on Friday.

"This is an important victory for Dr Butt who has been vindicated in his argument that the HEPDG is narrow, over prescriptive and will restrict freedom of speech," she said.

"While it is disappointing that the Court of Appeal has found the EAU's actions in gathering, storing and using Dr Butt's personal data to be lawful we hope that permission will be granted to appeal this important issue to the Supreme Court."

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