The UK Government’s controversial Prevent duty guidance to universities has been deemed unlawful by judges, after a successful judicial review stated that it violated freedom of speech.
The court of appeal found that Prevent guidelines on inviting “controversial” speakers were not accurate and impartial enough to guide universities of their equal responsibility of ensuring free speech while preventing students from being drawn into “terrorism”.
It came after Dr Salman Butt, 33, brought a claim that the Prevent guidance was too excessive by maintaining a strong presumption against allowing events to be hosted where the risk of students becoming “radicalised” could not be stopped.
Dr Butt argued that the guidance was having a damning effect on free speech and debate in universities by in effect censoring speakers who may have controversial views.
In their judgment handed down yesterday, Sir Terence Etherton, master of the rolls, Lord Justice Irwin and Lady Justice Sharp ruled that the “trenchant” language of the relevant sections of the guidance “is not only intended to frame the decision of [universities] on the topic in question, it is likely to do so”.
The judges said: “We do not intend to attempt a redraft of paragraph 11, since that is a matter for the government.
“We do, however, consider that a balanced guidance which better reflects what we perceive the secretary of state intended it to say…would be very easily achievable.”
Dr Butt, who is the editor-in-chief of Islam21C, brought his case after he was labelled an extremist speaker along with other Muslim figures in an official Downing Street press release which marked the publication of the updated Prevent duty guidance.
The press release said the Home Office’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU) had identified Dr Butt as a speaker who was “on record as expressing views contrary to British values”.
Before the press release was published, Dr Butt said he had no contact with the security services, the police or any other government body about his religious and political views.
His appeal came after the high court dismissed his claims in July 2017, despite a judge also rejecting the Prevent guidance by ruling that universities were within their rights to ignore it in the interests of freedom of speech.
However, the appeal court upheld an earlier ruling rejecting Dr Butt’s claim that collection and sharing of information about his personal views had invaded his privacy and constituted unauthorised surveillance.
Dr Butt now plans on appealing to the Supreme Court over that latter claim, and has lodged a separate libel claim against the UK Government over its description of him as an “extremist speaker”. Lawyers for the Home Office have suggested that they plan on defending their wording on the basis of “honest opinion”.
Dr Butt told The Guardian: “I haven’t had any other problems ever. At borders and stuff, they just let me through.
“I think if you just stand up and challenge something, they let you go. It’s the poor guys who just keep their heads down that keep getting hassled by Prevent. I think that’s what Prevent relies on; people just not knowing their rights.”
A Home Office spokeswoman said: “We will consider the implications of the court’s judgment relating to a single paragraph of Prevent duty guidance for universities.”
You can read more about this case on Islam21c.