New extremism definition may put free speech at risk, NSS warns

Posted: Thu, 7th Mar 2024

Proposed definition could 'label secularists as extremists'.

Lightspring, Shutterstock

A proposed new definition of 'extremism' could have "far-reaching consequences for free speech", the National Secular society has warned.

The NSS has told the government that plans to broaden the definition of extremism may put "legitimate political campaigning and dissent" and "the fundamental rights of individuals" at risk.

Communities secretary Michael Gove is reportedly set to announce a new definition of extremism which could capture those who seek to "undermine" the country's institutions or values.

The proposals would ban government bodies from engaging with groups or individuals that meet the new definition.

The NSS highlighted that the established Church of England and the monarchy are amongst the country's institutions, but "it would clearly be absurd and chillingly authoritarian to label secularists and republicans as 'extremists'".

It said: "Challenging a country's institutions and values is often necessary to foster progress, ensure accountability, and promote inclusivity.

"While such institutions may form the foundation of society, they are not infallible and require scrutiny and reform to better reflect the evolving needs of the society they serve".

The NSS also expressed concern at reports that extremism may be defined as "the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on intolerance, hatred or violence that aims to undermine the rights or freedoms of others".

It said 'intolerance' and 'hatred' are "subjective" and defining extremism in terms of 'undermining' rights or freedoms "fails to recognise that individual rights sometimes come into conflict with the rights of others".

The NSS called on the government to engage in a "thorough and inclusive consultation" with experts, civil society organisations, and other stakeholders before making any decision, to ensure democratic values and freedoms are protected.

NSS: New definition could pose "grave risks"

NSS chief executive Stephen Evans said: "In our increasingly febrile climate, any new definition of 'extremism' needs to be drafted extremely carefully.

"There are grave risks that a more expansive definition would lead to the labelling of legitimate political opinions, advocacy for social change, or dissenting voices as 'extremist'.

"This could stifle public discourse, marginalise legitimate groups, and erode basic freedoms – fuelling rather than addressing existing tensions.

"The government must therefore proceed with extreme caution."

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Tags: Disestablishment, Extremism, Free speech