Friday, November 11, 2005

Freedom Eroded Piece by Piece

The Oxford Student reports this week that Oxford University officials are seriously worried that tutorials may be affected under new "glorifying terrorism" laws. Apparently, just giving out materials that may be seen to be supporting terrorism, or asking students about their views on controversial pieces, may actually fall foul under the letter of the law. Obviously, this is a great burden upon academic freedom; if students at the best universities in the world cannot discuss such matters, and thus are not given the opportunity of making a greater understanding of where terrorism draws it support, then our freedoms are under ever greater threat than before. More broadly, it raises worrying questions about the government's desire to govern by headline.

Government spokesmen would no doubt say that the law would not be misused; it would only be used to attack people who were genuinely trying to rally support for terrorists, that law-abiding, honest citizens would have nothing to fear. And once again, they'd be lying. The law doesn't operate according to what people think is reasonable - it operates according to what the letter of the law says. If legislation is badly written, judges might be able to use their discretion to give more lenient sentencing. What they cannot do, however, is argue with the writing of the law as it currently stands. Now, if there are prosecutions on this basis, perhaps some good will have been achieved - it will highlight the problems of such badly-written legislation, and such ill-defined concepts as "glorifying terrorism", which sounds to me as if it borders on hate crime.

Firstly, the police will always want to use their legal powers to their full extent. This is no surprise; in many ways the police have a thoroughly unenviable job, and when it comes to terrorism their job is thankless. One slip-up, and they are lambasted, yet to keep their operations effective, they have to operate with no glory for their successes. They will, therefore, use any means they can to achieve their ends - and that is why it is vital that they are bound by the law of the land. We've already seen the Prevention of Terrorism Act used as a justification for preventing Walter Wolfgang getting back in to the Labour Party conference, and a woman being threatened under the very same act for walking in a cycle lane.

When it comes to considering tutorials, how are the police really going to react if they think that there is a terrorist or someone recruiting for terrorists at Oxford? Are they going to target the student based on incitement to violence, or are they going to use sweeping powers about "glorifying terrorism"? They're going to use whichever they think has greatest chance to succeed. And my suspicion is that something as vague and amorphous as "glorifying terrorism" wins just about every time.

What does that achieve? Well, it means that any tutor who isn't prepared to face down the government and the authorities on such an issue (or, indeed, is fearful of the bad press that such material might bring to his institution) will undoubtedly cut the use of potentially controversial materials out of his courses. Slowly but surely, documents vital in teaching the politics of certain areas will disappear from rational consideration.

That's what happens when bad concepts are introduced into law. Blair has shown a complete disdain for decent legislation during his time in office; what's more important is creating the impression something worthwhile is being done by government. Tinker with the system, create a nice impression, get a few favourable headlines. The civil liberties of the British people be damned. Of course, it's not the direct doings of the Labour Party. After all, they're just trying to protect honest citizens, who have nothing to fear from these new laws, as they won't be used against them. Except they might. And that is enough to get us to change our behaviour.