Will May's terrorism clampdown restrict freedom of speech?
Theresa May promised " Enough is Enough" after the two vicious terrorist attacks in Manchester and London Bridge during the election campaign. Since then we have a third attack in Finsbury Park, north London targeting Muslims.
Today a much slimmed down Queen's Speech promises new laws on security and possibly a U-turn on police cuts. But we need to be vigilant on what measures are taken and ensure that in a rush to clamp down on extremist perversions of the Muslim faith that the law is not used against other people to restrict freedom of speech and robust debate.
This threat was highlighted by none other than researchers at the House of Commons library who produced a timely review of terrorist legislation and also pointed out the pitfalls of badly drafted legislation and loose definitions of extremism.
As I wrote in Tribunelast week:
In the Tory manifesto Theresa May had committed herself to creating Commission for Countering Extremism. The Commons library paper says the last Tory government has already got a Counter-Extremism and Safeguarding Bill in the pipeline – which was never introduced because of the snap election.
This included powers to regulate all official out-of-school activities to prevent extremists from using them and banning people with extreme views from teaching in schools by extending the scope of the debarring system, at present used to prevent criminals and sex abusers from getting jobs.
It also included new powers to block people streaming extremist videos from outside the EU and new action to be taken against local councils that did not act to stop extremism in schools.
What is not clear is whether the new legislation would also include measures to disrupt extremist activity, including outlawing some organisations and some individuals, barring them using premises and trying to criminalise people who say they do not believe in democracy and advocate violence even if they have no intention of committing offences themselves. Some of this would involve issuing civil orders against individuals.
The Commons report raises a lot of questions:
• Can extremism be defined in a way that offers legal certainty?
• Is it necessary to resort to new civil orders instead of existing criminal offences?
• How will proposals avoid unjustified interference with freedom of religion and expression?
• Is it justified to limit speech which is not in itself illegal?
• How can online extremism be dealt with both by government and social media companies?
It warns: “Unless a consensus can be reached as to what constitutes extremism in the first place, the development of effective measures will continue to prove problematic.”
And the government can hardly introduce a law that singles out Muslims.
These are wise words because the direction of travel is to try to prosecute people for what they say not for what they do - and somehow try and control what is on the internet.
It is a law of unintended consequences as the Commons paper reveals. For while naturally Liberty objected it also led when the idea was debated in 2015 to objections from Christians.
They were protesting that people advocating gay marriage should be banned could face prosecution or denial of access to buildings because they would be described as extremists.
It is delicious irony that tough talk to clamp down on radical extremism could end up alienating the Tory's preferred government partner, the Democratic Unionist Party , who oppose gay marriage, unless of course there will be a special exemption for Northern Ireland. Even Dominic Raab, Conservative MP for Esher, now a government minister at the Ministry of Justice, objected to curbs on free speech, warning it could be used to prosecute other groups – including Christians opposing gay marriage,
People should scrutinise the proposed terrorism bill very carefully when it is published today. The Commons research paper is here.