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UK Anti-Terror Bill: Security vs Academic Freedom

Following the Paris attacks in January, many European governments have started discussing the option of taking measures to combat terrorism at home. The UK government has immediately taken action by drafting a Counter-Terrorism and Security Bill, which had generated concerns among university leaders and academics – who had warned that the proposed law could have threatened academic freedom. In particular, by listing universities as one of the specified authorities which - in the exercise of their functions - must “prevent people from being drawn into terrorism”, the law is seen as possibly limiting the freedom of speech for academics and guest speakers. Also, the bill would give the Home Secretary ultimate authority to take legal action to enforce a ban on speakers on campus if universities failed to carry out their duty under the law.

On 2 February, more than 500 professors voiced their concerns and signed an open letter published by the Guardian newspaper. Also, on 4 February Universities UK had urged the government to make amendments which seek to increase scrutiny and oversight of ministerial powers introduced by the Bill, and which would provide an increased recognition of the particular duties of universities in securing freedom of speech and academic freedom within the law. Following these initiatives, the Government decided to amend the legislation, softening the universities‘ duty to prevent terrorism and acknowledging the need to balance this duty with the other one, enshrined in the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 to secure freedom of speech. The Bill was finally approved by a vote in both Houses of Parliament and became law on 12 February.