Liberties Reporting on First Amendment freedoms

Britain struggles to curb extremism while respecting free speech

Free Speech | A new commission against terror raises concerns about freedom of expression
by Bonnie Pritchett
Posted 7/25/17, 02:36 pm

In an effort to fight terrorism within its borders, the United Kingdom has called for the establishment of the Commission for Countering Extremism. Critics worry attempts to ferret out extremists before they strike could result in collateral damage to free speech rights.

A 2015 proposal, the Extremism Bill, “proved controversial,” according to a House of Commons report, and was scrapped. But in the wake of the most recent homegrown terror attacks, Parliament is again trying to “[stamp] out extremist ideology in all its forms, both across society and on the internet, so it is denied a safe space to spread,” Queen Elizabeth II said in her June 21 speech before Parliament.

Defining the terms in the war on words could prove elusive, and therein lies the threat to free speech, said Laurence WiIkinson, an attorney with Alliance Defending Freedom International. Few British citizens agree on how to define “extremism,” a survey released last week indicated.

Wilkinson said Parliament’s working definition of “extremism” is “vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty, and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs.”

“I’m sure you could come up with a lots of views or beliefs that fall into that category,” he told me.

Pollsters did not define “extreme” before asking respondents whether they would use the term to describe any among a list of eight individuals. Considered individually, not comparatively, Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and Jesus each were categorized as “extreme” by 25-28 percent of participants. Pol Pot received the most extreme rankings at 58 percent, followed by Napoleon at 51 percent.

Pollsters then asked a series of questions beginning with the prompt, “In your opinion, is it extreme to believe …” From climate change to austerity and gender assignment to same-sex marriage, responses showed a significant divide in opinion. Thirty-seven percent polled said it is not extreme to believe gender should not be assigned at birth, and yet they split 47-46 percent in believing the statement “mothers should always stay home to look after children instead of doing paid work” is extreme.

The majority, 54 percent, agreed that the word “extreme” is not a “helpful word” when describing social and political opinions.

Wilkinson said the survey sponsors, the Evangelical Alliance UK, ADF International, and other human rights groups, support counterterrorism efforts but fear the slippery slope of censorship as a commission tries to define “nonviolent extremism.” Wilkinson said the proposed commission is not yet receiving the same pushback as the Extreme Bill, but observers are waiting to see who will staff it and what the scope of its authority is.

Facebook Facebook Carl Sandburg College students march in a 2013 parade in Bushnell, Ill.

Chilling speech on campus

A college named for poet, journalist, and Pulitzer Prize–winner Carl Sandburg has set new rules that seriously limit use of the bard’s stock and trade—words.

Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Ill., recently instituted an elastic dragnet to catch offenders who “intimidate,” “disparage,” or “create a hostile environment” with their speech. Initiating or participating in “incidents of bias or hate crimes” is also among the list of offenses that could result in disciplinary penalties from administrative admonition to immediate suspension.

“If Carl Sandburg College were included in FIRE’s Spotlight database, its policies would earn the school our worst ‘red light’ rating for having at least one policy that clearly and substantially restricts free speech,” Laura Beltz, a policy reform team program officer at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), told me. FIRE defends free speech rights on 450 of the 2,000 four-year American colleges, adding more schools as staffing allows.

Beltz said the number of ‘red light’ schools has dropped since the group began monitoring speech codes. But, to date, only 32 of the 450 schools have no policies restricting free speech on campus.

CSC can take action against a student who “is verbally abusive, threatens, uses offensive language, intimidates, engages in bullying, cyberbullying, or hazing, uses hate speech, disparaging comments, epithets or slurs which create a hostile environment that threatens the physical or mental well-being, health or safety of another individual or group on college property or where college-sponsored activities are taking place.”

Beltz said FIRE would consider adding Carl Sandburg College to its Spotlight database in the future. —B.P.

Child Evangelism Fellowship Child Evangelism Fellowship A student participates in a Child Evangelism Fellowship program

Getting the Word out

Attorneys for Child Evangelism Fellowship of Indiana (CEF) argued in federal court July 20 for equal access to Metropolitan School District of Pike Township facilities—access that has been denied for two years. The Pike Township schools have been refusing to let CEF use their buildings unless the after-school ministry pays a user fee, a requirement the district demands from no other extracurricular organizations.

Officials who believe they are upholding the wall of separation between church and state often deny CEF’s Good News Club access to school facilities. Usually a letter detailing the district’s violation of CEF’s constitutional rights clears up any misunderstandings and opens the doors to a cooperative relationship between school officials and CEF volunteers. Attorneys with Liberty Counsel said the school district did not back down from its demand even after CEF sued it. —B.P.

A moot point?

Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who spent five days in jail in 2015 for refusing to put her name on same-sex marriage licenses, will not have to pay attorneys fees in the lawsuit resulting from her actions. A federal judge ruled July 21 the state of Kentucky must pick up the $222,695 tab.

Grateful that his client, Davis, and the county are not liable for fees, Liberty Counsel attorney Mat Staver said he would appeal U.S. District Judge David Bunning’s ruling that the state must pay the fees. Bunning ruled Davis acted on behalf of the state, not herself or the county, when she refused to issue marriage licenses, making the state liable for damages. But Staver argues no fees are due because the case became moot when newly elected Gov. Matt Bevin signed legislation removing county clerks’ names from marriage licenses. With no winning party, there is no payment of attorney fees, Staver said. —B.P.

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Bonnie Pritchett

Bonnie is a correspondent for WORLD. She is a graduate of World Journalism Institute and the University of Texas School of Journalism. Bonnie resides with her family in League City, Texas.

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  • Janet B
    Posted: Thu, 07/27/2017 10:32 am

    Re: A moot point:

    So let the state pay Kim Davis the money as compensation for an overactive judge illegally putting her in jail...