Proposed changes to the government’s definition of extremism could require universities to denounce radical academics.
Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, has proposed a new definition of extremism as “the promotion or advancement of any ideology which aims to overturn or undermine the UK’s system of parliamentary democracy, its institutions and values.” The definition extends to “continued uncritical association with organisations or individuals who are exhibiting extremist behaviours”.
Gove’s proposed redefinition is a direct threat to academic freedom. The reference to “institutions” – absent in previous government definitions of extremism – is highly vague and open to interpretation. Are critics of the monarchy or trial by jury extremists? Even if the definition is interpreted narrowly, it still takes in many radical academics; and the extension of extremism to include continued uncritical association with extremists implies, read literally, that universities which employ and fail to denounce radicals among its faculty are guilty of extremism. This is intolerable. Universities must not be required by government to denounce their staff, even if their views are radically illiberal.
It is possible that Gove did not intend the proposed redefinition to restrict academic freedom in this way. It might simply be that the proposal is clumsy and poorly thought through. Even so, it remains a threat. Free speech must be extended even to those who argue against it. Radical academics – provided that they do not incite violence, or otherwise break the law – must not be molested by university or government authorities. Universities must not be compelled to denounce them. The proposed new definition should not be adopted.