GOVERNMENT plans to tackle religious extremism have resulted in an alliance between the Christian Institute and the National Secular Society, which have united to denounce the plans as “a threat to free speech and ancient rights”.
The organisations’ new campaign, “Defend Free Speech”, which is also supported by the human-rights activist Peter Tatchell, the former West Midlands Chief Constable Lord Dear, and the outspoken critic of anti-terror measures David Davis MP, has been set up in response to partial information about plans to be included in a new Extremism Bill.
The Bill has yet to be published, but the Conservative Party’s General Election manifesto said that it would include Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) to “prevent those who are seeking to radicalise young British people online from using the internet or communicating via social media”.
It also promised measures to “tackle the infiltration of extremists into our schools and public services”, and new duties for the broadcasting regulator Ofcom “so that tough measures can be taken against channels that broadcast extremist content”. It will also allow employers to “check whether an individual is an extremist, and bar them from working with children”, and prevent universities and colleges from giving “a platform to extremist speakers”.
The new campaign group says that “innocent people will fall foul of the law for merely holding unpopular, unfashionable, or challenging views. This could include pro- and anti-religious groups, trade unionists, and environmental campaigners.”
The campaign director, Simon Calvert, said: “The proposed legislation opens the door to many ordinary people, and campaign groups’ facing the threat of having an EDO placed on them for simply standing up for what they believe.
“Those who face the threat of an EDO include people with traditional views, environmental campaigners, the publishers of satirical magazines such as Private Eye, religious groups, and anti-religious groups.
“Just look at the way some police officers believe anti-fracking campaigners such as Caroline Lucas MP are extremists, and have gone as far as urging teachers to report pupils and parents who go on environmental protests.”
The Guardian reported last week that a 14-year-old Muslim pupil at the Central Foundation School in London had begun legal action after the school reported him to social workers because of his mentioning “eco-terrorists” during a discussion in a French lesson about green campaigners.
The paper reports that he was taken to an “inclusion centre” in the school, and questioned about his knowledge of IS.
Last month, The Daily Telegraph reported that it had seen leaked government documents that said that the Bill would include a national register of faith leaders. The report says that the government plans to ban religious leaders whose behaviour “undermines British values”, even if it “falls below the thresholds in counter-terrorism legislation”.
The C of E said that it was “keeping a watching brief as things develop”, but declined to comment on the plans for a national register, saying that it did not comment on leaked reports. A Church House spokesman did say that an official register of clergy already existed in the publicly available Crockford’s Clerical Directory.
The Defend Free Speech campaign has highlighted words used by the Prime Minister when he unveiled plans for the new Bill to the National Security Council.
“For too long, we have been a passively tolerant society, saying to our citizens: as long as you obey the law, we will leave you alone,” David Cameron said, a Cabinet Office press release reports. “It’s often meant we have stood neutral between different values. And that’s helped foster a narrative of extremism and grievance.
“This Government will conclusively turn the page on this failed approach. As the party of one nation, we will govern as one nation, and bring our country together. That means actively promoting certain values.”
Mr Calvert said: “This is a truly Orwellian piece of legislation, the like of which might be found in Russia or Egypt, but which you would not expect to find in a liberal democracy. The Government needs to think again.”