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? It seems that Downing Street was determined to find facts to fit its agenda, even ignoring calls to amend figures later used to smear British universities.

In doing so, it betrayed the supposedly “British values” of open debate, free speech and political dissent it originally claimed to protect.

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.