An “Extremist” Fights Back

Prominent Muslim activist Dr. Salman Butt launches legal challenge against misleading government report labelling him a non-violent “extremist”

Dr. Salman Butt, a prominent Muslim activist, has launched a legal challenge against the UK government’s Prevent strategy, claiming it breached his free speech rights.

Last year, Dr. Butt was one of six so-called “hate speakers” singled out by Downing Street as “expressing views contrary to British values.”

Muslim activist Dr. Salman Butt (source)

The claims were made via Downing Street’s September 17, 2015 press release, titled “PM’s Extremism Taskforce: tackling extremism in universities and colleges top of the agenda.”

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Downing Street’s September 17, 2015 press release (source)

Citing work by Whitehall’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), Downing Street claimed that in 2014 there were “70 events involving speakers who are known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy.”

However, e-mails recently obtained via a public records request (click to read) show that much of the data attributed to the EAU in the press release – including information used to “name and shame” universities – was taken from a misleading July 2015 report by Student Rights, an arm of “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society.

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July 2015 report by Student Rights director Rupert Sutton (source)

As the e-mails show, Downing Street was still in the process of collecting case studies to support the updated strategy the morning prior to publication, and appears to have ignored a request from an internal fact-checker to amend figures about the number of events featuring “hate speakers” held on university campuses in 2014.

The e-mails also show that, despite having supposedly dropped plans for an statutory ban on so-called “extremist” speakers in March of last year, the government was still toying with the idea of a ban right up until September 16, 2015, just five days before the updated guidance officially came into force.

Via BBC News, Dr. Butt denied holding views contrary to British values, and expressed his intention to shine a light on the inner workings of government policy:

“I’m a father of three, I’m a British Muslim, a writer, an activist. I am not an extremist, either violent or non-violent.

“Being labelled as some kind of extremist does have a stigmatising effect. I have not spoken at any universities since I was named in the [Downing Street] press release.

“My aim isn’t just to clear my name, it is to bring transparency to the hidden processes by which individuals are tarnished with the label of an extremist, to ensure it is brought into the scrutiny of the courts.”

Saimo Chahal QC, partner and human rights lawyer at Bindmans LLP, said that Dr. Butt’s challenge is a test case.

Human rights lawyer Saimo Chahal QC (source)

Via BBC News:

“The Prevent duty guidance issued to higher education institutions is flawed because it conflicts with the right to free speech which is enshrined in the Education Act for higher education institutions,” [Chahal] said.

“The challenge, if successful, could have major implications for the controversial policy as it applies to universities and higher education,” she added.

According to the BBC, Dr. Butt’s lawyers will be challenging part of the strategy that aims to stop people from becoming or supporting terrorists, as well as challenging the government’s definition of “extremism,” which they say is ill-defined.

Additionally, they have been given permission to challenge the way the government’s EAU collected information about Dr. Butt, arguing the process lacks transparency, and that the procedure for identifying people as “extremists” is flawed and in breach of the law.

See also: “The Tyranny of Values,” my October 23 item re: Downing Street’s unattributed use of data from “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society to “name and shame” universities that host “extremist” speakers.

The Tyranny of Values

Downing Street used misleading data from “right-wing think tank” to “name and shame” universities that host “extremist” speakers, newly released e-mails show

Late last year, Downing Street unveiled its updated Prevent strategy, requiring universities and colleges to “stop extremists radicalising students on campuses.”

Citing work by Whitehall’s Extremism Analysis Unit (EAU), Downing Street claimed that in 2014 there were “70 events involving speakers who are known to have promoted rhetoric that aimed to undermine core British values of democracy.”

Honouring the former PM David Cameron’s pledge to “name and shame” institutions that host “hate speakers,” four universities were singled out: King’s College London, Kingston University, Queen Mary, and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS).

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Downing Street’s September 17, 2015 press release

However, e-mails recently obtained via a public records request show that much of the data attributed to the EAU in the above press release – including information used to “name and shame” universities – was taken from a misleading July 2015 report by Student Rights, an arm of “right-wing think tank” the Henry Jackson Society.

“Striking similarities” between the press release and the Student Rights report were first highlighted in this October 1, 2015 Times Higher Education article by Jack Grove.

For instance, the Student Rights report “lists the four London universities mentioned by Downing Street in its own table of most-visited universities. It also includes a list of former students later convicted of terrorism-related offences – of whom eight are also mentioned in the press release.”

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Top: The Student Rights report / Bottom: Downing Street’s press release

The appropriated data was used to put a favourable spin on the government’s controversial counter-terrorism measures in a supporting statement by David Cameron, who prefaced his comments about “making sure that radical views and ideas are not given the oxygen they need to flourish” with a caveat about not “oppressing free speech.”

But efforts to assuage concerns about the possible chilling effect on free speech failed to convince, and the PM’s arguments in favour of limiting speech faltered under scrutiny.

Former Prime Minister David Cameron

Via the Independent, two of the four universities “named and shamed” by Downing Street denied hosting any of the so-called “hate speakers” listed in the press release, calling into question the premise that British universities are “hotbeds” of terrorist activity.

There were also questions about the list of convicted former students, two of whom were supposedly radicalised during their studies.

Via Times Higher Education:

“Both reports cite the example of the so-called underwear bomber, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, who attempted to set off a bomb on a Detroit-bound plane in 2009, even though an inquiry by University College London found no evidence to suggest that he was radicalised while a student there.”

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Top: The Student Rights report / Bottom: Downing Street’s press release

Roshonara Choudhry, who was jailed for life for stabbing Labour MP Stephen Timms in 2010 shortly after dropping out of King’s College London, also appears in both documents. She admitted to having been radicalised by watching over a hundred hours of speeches on YouTube, and said she dropped out of King’s because she felt it to be ‘anti-Islamic.’”

So how did Downing Street get it so wrong?

As this “URGENT” September 16, 2015 e-mail shows, Downing Street’s press office was still in the process of collecting data the morning prior to publication.

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Per this quick response to the above request to fact-check an early draft of the press release, the office was then urged to “amend the figures for numbers of events in 2014.”

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It was suggested using the dubious Student Rights report in response to the office’s request for “case studies on extremists speaking on campuses.”¹

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Downing Street has yet to substantiate its claim that in 2014 “at least 70 events featuring hate speakers were held on campuses” – the only figure in the press release to have come from the EAU – with the Home Office refusing to provide a more detailed breakdown.

Assuming this figure is accurate, why did one of Downing Street’s internal fact-checkers request a correction? Why did Downing Street ignore calls to amend figures later used to smear British universities?

To ban or not to ban?

Also contained in the e-mails is a trial script” of the press release, plus an early draft of a scolding letter from Minister for Universities and Science Jo Johnson to former president of the National Union of Students (NUS) Megan Dunn.

As stated in the published version of the press release, the updated Prevent guidance requires universities to ensure those espousing extremist views do not go unchallenged.”

This means that when a university suspects an external speaker of holding “extremist” views, they must not be allowed to speak unless the “risk” of allowing them to do so is “mitigated by challenging the speaker…with someone holding opposing opinions.”

Anti-Prevent demonstration held in 2015

Downing Street had originally pushed for a statutory ban on “extremist speakers, including “non-violent extremists. The plans were were reportedly scrapped in March last year over concerns about free speech.

However, as this trial script” of the press release shows, Downing Street was still toying with the idea of a ban on “extremist speakers right up until September 16, 2015, just five days before the updated guidance came into force.

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In May this year, the government announced its intention to revive the proposed ban.

The plans were criticised by the police lead for Prevent Simon Cole, who warned that a ban risked creating a “thought police,” and suggested it was questionable whether the proposed legislation was even operationally enforceable.

Jo Johnson’s letter to the NUS

In the published version of the Jo Johnson letter, the Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) minister urged the NUS to end its overt opposition” to Prevent, citing the legal duty that will be placed on universities and colleges.”

However, per this early draft of the letter, Johnson chastised the NUS for its supposedly “inaccurate, outdated” and “misguided opinions,” which he claimed left no space for “balanced debate.”

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Responding to the revised letter, Megan Dunn said that she was confused about why the government was so focused on the NUS, as “students’ unions are not public bodies and therefore not subject to the act.”

She added: “The NUS is a campaigning organisation, so our opposition to this agenda, based on both principled and practical concerns…is both valid and appropriate.”

Preventing Prevent

Since the updated Prevent strategy was brought into force, it’s been reported that the British government’s loose definition of extremism” is being used by other countries to crackdown on non-violent” dissent.

Last month, the prisoner advocacy group CAGE published a startling report on the junk science” underpinning the Prevent strategy’s assessment criteria for identifying at-risk” individuals at the so-called pre-criminal” stage of radicalisation.

The report prompted more than 140 academics and experts, including the renowned linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, to sign an open letter voicing concern over the lack of proper scientific scrutiny or public critique.”

Last week, the Open Justice Society Initiative published its report recommending a “major government rethink of the “badly-flawed Prevent strategy, particularly on its use in the education and health system.

The report highlights multiple, mutually reinforcing structural flaws, the foreseeable consequence of which is a serious risk of human rights violations” including the right against discrimination, as well the right to freedom of expression, among other rights.”

¹At the time of this e-mail, information from the Student Rights report had already been added to the press release, although it’s unclear when.

Unfurnished

Award-winning reporter Tristin Hopper says The National Post geo-blocked his article about UK celebrity injunction after being contacted by internationally renowned law firm Fasken Martineau

Last month, I blogged about efforts by David Furnishhusband of pop singer Elton Johnto censor journalists and Internet users from reporting or discussing his alleged extra-marital affair with another married couple.

Furnish hired at least two London law firms to enforce a high court injunction he obtained in January preventing newspapers in England and Wales from reporting the story.¹

But efforts to squash the story didn’t end there.

The story as reported by the Daily Mail earlier this year

In April, UK-based anti-piracy company Web Sheriff filed 12 copyright complaints with Google requesting it remove a total of 447 URLs linking to articles about the scandal.

Among the websites flagged for removal was Toronto-based publication The National Post, whose April 11, 2016 article, “Why the English media could go to jail for reporting on the olive oil trysts of Elton John’s husband” by WMA award-winning reporter Tristin Hopper, did not skimp on the grisly details of Furnish’s alleged affair.

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Via a US proxy, the National Post’s April 11, 2016 article

Although Google didn’t enforce Web Sheriff’s complaint, Hopper’s article was later geo-blocked from being viewed in the UK.

When I asked Hopper about Web Sheriff, he said the Post geo-blocked his article after it was contacted by Fasken Martineau, an internationally renowned Canadian business law and mitigation firm with offices in London and Toronto.

“Web Sheriff did not contact us, but we did hear from a lawyer hired by Mr. Furnish,” said Hopper, referring to the Canadian firm.

He added: “It might be Furnish or Elton John’s regular Canadian lawyer. At a certain level of fame, I imagine you’ve got a lawyer on speed dial for every major country, whether it be for copyright issues or signing contracts or the like.”

National Post reporter Tristin Hopper

About the Post’s decision to geo-block his article in the UK, Hopper said: “[T]he legality is murky, but I do believe it was done on the belief that we become subject to UK law once we enter UK web space.”

Fasken Martineau did not respond to multiple requests for comment.


¹I live in Northern Ireland, therefore not bound by the injunction in England and Wales.

See also: “The Bitch is Back,” my September 12, 2016 article about Furnish’s efforts to censor online news stories about his alleged affair.

Voice in the Wilderness

Nina Teicholz by Laura Rose

“I guess history repeats itself, and the losers are not just me but a fair and public airing of the best and most current science” – The (ongoing) story of how top US nutritionists tried to gag New York Times best-selling author Nina Teicholz [UPDATED: CSPI’s BMJ retraction request goes missing – more after the jump]

As readers of Shooting the Messenger and The Sidebar (my Atlanta, GA blogging buddy Peter M. Heimlich’s world-beating website) will know, there have been some major developments in recent months re: efforts by members of the United States Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee (DGAC) to gag journalist and author Nina Teicholz.

Taking stock of the story so far, it’s remarkable how closely each new development seems to mirror Teicholz’s own account of previous efforts by nutritionists to suppress dissenting viewpoints.

Via her 2014 book on the history of nutritional science, The Big Fat Surprise:

At a conference that [Danish researcher Uffe Ravnskov] and I were both attending near Copenhagen in 2005, he stood out in the crowd simply because he was willing to confront this gathering of top nutrition experts by asking questions that were considered long since settled.

“The whole pathway, from cholesterol in the blood, to heart disease – has this pathway really been proven?” he stood up and asked, rightly though rhetorically, after a presentation one day.

“Tsh! Tsh! Tsh!” A hundred-plus scientists wagged their heads in unison.

“Next question?” asked an irritated moderator.

For Teicholz, who started her research “expect[ing] to find a community in decorous debate,” this incident illustrated a surprising lack of tolerance within the nutritional sciences for alternative viewpoints, or even simple scientific inquiry.

Her anecdote would prove prescient.

On November 5 last year, a letter signed by over 180 credentialed professionals, including a number of prominent faculty members at major universities, was sent to the BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal).

The letter – organised by Bonnie Liebman at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), a Washington, DC-based advocacy non-profit – requested that the journal retract The scientific report guiding the US Dietary Guidelines: is it scientific?, Teicholz’s September 23 article criticising the methodology and findings of the 2015 DGAC.

If there’s any doubt as to whether this constituted an attempt to silence a critic, all 14 members of the 2015 DGAC signed their names to the letter.

But the effort to gag Teicholz didn’t end there.

In March this year, she was disinvited from the National Food Policy Conference, a prestigious Washington, DC food policy panel at which she was scheduled to speak the following month (her replacement was president and CEO of the Alliance for Potato Research & Education Maureen Storey).

Sound familiar? Check out this excerpt from The Big Fat Surprise:

As [Ancel] Key’s ideas spread and became adopted by powerful institutions, those who challenged him faced a difficult – some might say impossible – battle. Being on the losing side of such a high-stakes debate had caused their professional lives to suffer. Many of them had lost jobs, research funding, speaking engagements, and all the many other perks of prestige.

…they were not invited to conferences and were unable to get prestigious journals to publish their work. Experiments that had dissenting results, they found, were not debated but instead dismissed or ignored altogether.

Things took a sinister turn in late March, with Peter reporting on how DGAC chair Barbara Millen and US Department of Agriculture exec Angela Tagtow conspired with Thomas Gremillion – director of food policy at the Consumer Federation of America (CFA), which organised the conference – to kick Teicholz off the panel (click here to read Peter’s May 2 article showing the extent of Millen’s involvement).

Piling-on the anti-Nina Teicholz bandwagon was nutritionist and Huffington Post columnist Dr. David Katz, who was quoted in Ian Leslie’s acclaimed April 7 Guardian article, The sugar conspiracy, describing Teicholz as “shockingly unprofessional” and “an animal unlike anything I’ve ever seen before.”

Via The Big Fat Surprise:

…slander and personal ridicule were surprisingly not unusual experiences for…opponents of the diet-heart hypothesis.

Last month, several prominent physicians  criticised Katz for his ad hominem remarks, leading Yale University’s School of Medicine to publicly disassociate from its otherwise unrelated namesake, the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centerof which Katz is the founding director.

Bringing the whole sorry story up-to-date, this month Peter – with help from my gf Kelsi White and I — exposed Harvard professor and DGAC member Dr. Frank Hu’s efforts to solicit European signatories to Bonnie Liebman’s CSPI retraction letter.

Is Teicholz surprised by the extreme measures taken by members of the DGAC to shut her out of the debate? Here’s what she had to say:

“Even though I had covered the vicious politics of nutrition science extensively in my book, I couldn’t quite imagine the force with which the various attack strategies would be applied against me. Virtually every tactic that Keys and his allies used to malign anyone who challenged them – false accusations about supposed errors and supposed industry backing as well as just sheer name-calling – has been employed aggressively against me. I guess history repeats itself, and the losers are not just me but a fair and public airing of the best and most current science.”

Update, 14/07/2016: The CSPI’s November 5, 2015 retraction request of The scientific report guiding the US Dietary Guidelines: is it scientific?, Teicholz’s September 23, 2015 BMJ article criticising the methodology and findings of the 2015 DGAC, has gone missing from the CSPI’s website, in its place this 404 notice:

CSPI BMJ 404 Page

According to Teicholz, the BMJ is preparing to announce it will not retract her article.

A PDF of the CSPI’s retraction request is available by clicking here.

An updated, December 17, 2015 version – absent the names of 18 signatories – is available by clicking here.

Worst in Show

Police Scotland arrests man for Nazi dog video – I’ve asked authorities to advise dog owners on how to behave their pooches online

Police in Scotland have reportedly arrested a 28-year-old man from North Lanarkshire on hate crime charges over a video he allegedly posted online of a dog gesturing a Nazi salute.

Via the Guardian:

The Guardian May 9 pug hate crime

The video/apology, via SWNS TV (trigger warning – fascist pug):

I’ve asked Police Scotland to confirm the arrest and to further advise on what precautions dog owners can take to avoid causing offence online. Stay tuned.

Thanks to Peter M. Heimlich for linking me to the pug-nacious video above.

See also: The #ThinkBeforeYouTweet Police, my April 10, 2016 item on the Greater Glasgow Police force’s warning to social media users to “think before you post or you may receive a visit from us this weekend.”

Q&A with Peter Tatchell

Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights” – Renowned human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell answers my questions on racism, transphobia and freedom of speech

For over 40 years, British human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell has worked tirelessly to advance the causes of freedom, civil rights and social equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) people worldwide.

As a leading member of the Gay Liberation Front, Tatchell helped organise Britain’s first gay pride rally in 1972. He is also a founding member oLGBT activist group Outrage!, known for its theatrical style of campaigning and flair for political agitprop.

In February this year, Tatchell was forced to fend off unsubstantiated accusations of racism, transphobia and of having incited violence against transgender people from National Union of Students (NUS) LGBT officer” Fran Cowling.

To recap: Tatchell and Cowling were scheduled to speak at an event at Canterbury Christ Church University on Feb. 15. However, Cowling declined to appear on stage with Tatchell, citing an open letter he had signed in the Observer newspaper last year decrying the NUS’ policy of deplatforming politically unpopular individuals from speaking at universities.

On Feb. 22, over 160 academics and activists signed an open letter condemning Tatchell for “bullying, vilifying, and inciting a media furor” against Cowling (you can read Tatchell’s account of what happened by clicking here).

I contacted Tatchell a few months ago to ask him about the incident with Cowling and the broader issues around freedom of speech. He generously agreed to answer my questions.

Q. Why do you think freedom of speech is so important?

A. Free speech is one of the most precious of all human rights and should be defended robustly. It can only be legitimately restricted by the law when it involves harmful libels, harassment, menaces, threats and incitements to violence.

As someone who has risked life and limb for LGBT rights, how do you respond to Cowling’s accusations of transphobia and of inciting violence against transgender people?

She has produced no evidence for those preposterous claims – nor has anyone else. It is pure fabrication.

Are you disappointed in the response from the 160+ academics and activists who signed an open letter condemning you for leaking Cowling’s emails?

Those academics are part of a global network of sectarians who have been attacking me and other activists for several years. They spend more time [complaining] than fighting real racism, anti-Muslim prejudice and corporate power. Their open letter is full of the usual fabrications and unsubstantiated allegations.

What’s your opinion of the NUS policy on “no-platforming” speakers with offensive or politically incorrect views?

No-platforming should be restricted to people who incite violence, such as some far right and Islamist demagogues.

Why is it important that students listen to, engage with and debate people who hold these views?

Hateful and extremist ideas should be challenged, protested and refuted. Bad ideas are most effectively countered by good ideas backed up by rational argument and evidence. Heavy-handed legal restrictions on free speech undermine the democratic, liberal values that extremists oppose and that we cherish.

Bans and censorship don’t defeat bigotry. They merely suppress it. Whereas, exposing bigotry in open debate helps discredit and defeat it, as happened to Nick Griffin and the BNP. Bad ideas are best and most effectively defeated by good ideas.

How would you persuade student activists like Cowling, who perhaps don’t know what it’s like for people living in places such as Saudi Arabia or Zimbabwe, that free speech is worth fighting for?

Freedom of speech is one of the most precious and important human rights. It can only be legitimately restricted when someone makes false, damaging allegations – such as that a person is a rapist or tax fraudster – or when they engage in threats, harassment or the endorsement of violence.

A free society depends on the free exchange of ideas. Nearly all ideas are capable of giving offence to someone. Many of the most important, profound ideas in human history, such as those of Galileo Galilei and Charles Darwin, caused great religious offence in their time.

Generations of British people fought and suffered to secure the right to free speech. In many parts of the world people are still suffering for speaking out, including in Iran, Russia, Zimbabwe and Saudi Arabia. It is an insult to their sacrifices when students and others are so quick to suppress the free speech of others they disagree with.


To learn more about Peter Tatchell’s humanitarian work, click here.
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