New U.K. Extremism Policy Raises Concerns Over Free Speech

Britain’s government published a new definition of extremism on Thursday that it intends to use to cut ties or funding to groups deemed to have crossed the line, but which critics fear could curtail campaigners’ rights and curb free speech.

Michael Gove, a senior cabinet minister, said in a statement that the move was intended to “protect democratic values” by being “clear and precise in identifying the dangers posed by extremism.”

Some advocacy groups and legal experts greeted the announcement with concern, warning that it could affect the rights of those deemed by the government to meet the definition. The only way to challenge such a ruling is likely to be through the courts.

The initiative has also stirred a wider debate about how, before a general election that must be held by early next year, British politicians choose to deal with domestic tensions that have risen since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel and Israel’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Even before the details of the new extremism proposals were made public, they had provoked criticism from rights groups and concern from three former Conservative Party home secretaries, whose remit included national security, who warned against using the issue of extremism for political advantage.

Leaders from the Church of England also weighed in. The archbishop of Canterbury — Justin Welby, who is the head of the church and a peer in the House of Lords — and the archbishop of York said in a statement issued on Tuesday that the new definition “not only inadvertently threatens freedom of speech, but also the right to worship and peaceful protest, things that have been hard won and form the fabric of a civilized society.”

They added: “Crucially, it risks disproportionately targeting Muslim communities, who are already experiencing rising levels of hate and abuse.”

Under the new plan, extremism will be defined as “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance” that aims to “negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or undermine, overturn or replace the U.K.’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights,” or intentionally create a “permissive environment” for others to do so.

In its statement, the government said that its new definition was not statutory and would have no effect on existing criminal law. But it added that, after publication of the new definition, “the government will undertake a robust process to assess groups for extremism against the definition, which will then inform decisions around government engagement and funding.”

Critics said it was that element — the idea that whichever government is in power could blacklist groups it considers extremist, and ban them from meeting with any government bodies or officials, or receiving taxpayer funding — that could threaten free speech and civil liberties.

David Anderson, a senior lawyer and former independent reviewer of terrorism legislation for the government, told the BBC that there were many questions that still needed to be answered about the policy.

“The definition remains extremely broad,” he said. “For example, it catches people who advance an ideology which negates the fundamental rights of others. One can imagine both sides of the trans debate leaping on that one.”

Mr. Anderson, who is also a member of the House of Lords, said he did not take much comfort from reassurances that the definition related only to interactions with government. “I think you are also affecting a lot of people potentially by branding them as extremists,” he said, adding that it “affects potentially the freedoms and reputations of an awful lot of people.”

Sacha Deshmukh, Amnesty International’s chief executive, described the plan as a “dangerously sweeping approach to labeling groups and individuals ‘extremist’” adding in a statement that it was “another smash and grab” on human rights.

“This attempt to stigmatize legitimate, peaceful political activity is taking us further down the road toward authoritarianism,” he added.

Some Conservative lawmakers also warned against any measures that could threaten free speech. Miriam Cates, a Conservative Party lawmaker, told The Times of London that she believed radical Islamism to be the most significant threat to Britain’s national security, but that it should be addressed “by properly upholding our existing laws and proscribing groups that have links to terrorism.”

“In a pluralistic democracy, there are, of course, a wide range of opinions that many of us would consider extreme,” she added. “But the state should only intervene if there is an actual threat of physical harm. Otherwise, we erode our fundamental freedoms of speech, association, expression and religion.”

The government tried to address such concerns in its statement on Thursday, saying that the plan was “not about silencing those with private and peaceful beliefs — not will it affect free speech, which will always be protected.”

The announcement did not include a list of groups deemed to have fallen foul of the new definition, although the government is expected to announce one in the coming weeks.

The initiative follows a speech by Prime Minister Rishi Sunak this month in which he spoke of “a shocking increase in extremist disruption and criminality” in Britain since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led attack in Israel. Mr. Sunak appealed to people in Britain to come together “to combat the forces of division and beat this poison.”

Mr. Sunak had previously given an outspoken warning at a meeting of senior police officers that “mob rule is replacing democratic rule.”

Mr. Gove said in his statement that “the pervasiveness of extremist ideologies has become increasingly clear in the aftermath of the 7 October attacks and poses a real risk to the security of our citizens and our democracy.” He added, “This is the work of extreme right-wing and Islamist extremists who are seeking to separate Muslims from the rest of society and create division within Muslim communities.”

The new definition updates one outlined in a government anti-extremism strategy known as Prevent. It defined extremism as “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.” Calling for the death of members of the armed forces was also included in the definition.

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