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Students Warned Reading 3rd-Year Politics Essay Could Fall Foul of Counter Terrorism Legislation

An essay by the respected Professor Norman Geras has been flagged by the University of Reading as ‘sensitive’ under UK’s Counter-Terrorism scheme

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A student reads on a laptop, 2013. Courtesy: John Loo

A student reads on a laptop, 2013. Courtesy: John Loo/Flickr

Students at the University of Reading have been told to act with caution when reading an essay by a leading left-wing academic in order to avoid investigation as part of the UK government’s Prevent scheme.

The essay, written by the late Professor Norman Geras on the subject of the ethics of a socialist revolution, was set as ‘essential’ reading on a third-year politics module titled ‘Justice and Injustice’. The essay rejects terrorism but argues that in the case of severe social injustice, violence could be justified. The text was flagged by the university as ‘sensitive’ under Prevent guidelines.

The ‘Prevent’ duty is listed under section 26 of the Counter-Terrorism and Security Act (2015), which states that higher education bodies ‘must, in the exercise of its functions, have due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism.’ The strategy forms one part of the four ‘Ps’ of the government’s counter-terrorism strategy. (Protect, prepare and pursue comprise the three further tactics).

The University of Reading has issued advice to students for the circumstances under which they should read Professor Geras’s essay, entitled ‘Our Morals: The Ethics of Revolution’. The advice includes warnings not to read the text on personal devices, to access it only in a secure setting ‘where the material cannot be accessed by other students’ and to not leave it where it could by read ‘inadvertently or otherwise, by those who are not prepared to view it’.

However, the incident has been met with outcry from academics across the country. Fahid Quarashi, a lecturer in Sociology at Staffordshire University said the incident indicates how anti-terrorism legislation is ‘being applied far beyond its purview.’

Waqas Tufail, a senior lecturer in criminology added to criticism, saying: ‘This text was authored by a mainstream, prominent academic who was well-regarded in his field, who was a professor at Manchester for many years and whose obituary was published in The Guardian. This case raises huge concerns about academic freedom and students’ access to material, and it raises wider questions about the impact of Prevent.’

Ilyas Nagdee, black student’s officer at the National Union of Students said: ‘Prevent fundamentally alters the relationship between students and educators, with those most trusted with our wellbeing and development forced to act as informants. As this case shows, normal topics that are discussed as a matter of course in our educational spaces are being treated as criminal’.

In sector-specific advice issued to higher education institutions in England and Wales in 2015, the UK Government included a statement explaining the rationality behind the Prevent scheme: ‘Relevant Higher Education Bodies […] represent one of our most important arenas for challenging extremist views and ideologies. But young people continue to make up a disproportionately high number of those arrested in this country for terrorist-related offences and of those who are travelling to join terrorist organisations in Syria and Iraq.’

The Counter-Terrorism and Security Act has repeatedly come under fire since its expansion by the coalition government in 2011. In 2016, labour politician and Major of Manchester Andy Burnham called the Prevent duty ‘highly discriminatory against one section of the community’. While in 2017 a report based on interviews with 36 Muslim students, academics and professional argued that Prevent instils ‘fear, suspicion and censorship’ on university campuses.

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