The British government has unveiled a new proposal that would require Islamic extremists to have their social media posts pre-approved by the government.
The plan—which is aimed at curbing the spread of jihadist propaganda in Britain—is part of a wide-ranging effort to strengthen the government's counter-terrorism strategy ahead of general elections set for May 2015.
The new policy is so broad in scope, however, and the definition of "extremist" is so all-encompassing, that the government could ultimately silence anyone whose views are deemed to be politically incorrect, according to free speech activists.
The so-called Extremism Disruption Orders (EDOs) would prohibit any individual the government considers to be an "extremist" from appearing on radio and television, protesting in public or even posting messages on Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, without permission.
The new measure was announced in passing by British Home Secretary Theresa May in a speech focused almost entirely on Islamic terrorism, and delivered at the Conservative Party's annual conference on September 29.
May's proposal was roundly condemned by critics who warned that such "gagging orders" would amount to an unprecedented attack on the freedom of speech.
The debate was reignited on October 31, when the Daily Telegraph obtained a copy of a letter written by George Osborne, a senior member of the British cabinet, in which he informed constituents that the EDOs would not be limited to fighting Islamic extremism.
The ultimate objective of the EDOs, Osborne wrote, would be to "eliminate extremism in all its forms" and they would be used to curtail the activities of all those who "spread hate but do not break laws."
Osborne added that that the new orders—which will be included in the Conservative Party's election manifesto—would extend to any activities that "justify hatred" against people on the grounds of religion, sexual orientation, gender or disability.
Osborne also revealed that anyone seeking to challenge an EDO would have to go the High Court and file an appeal based on a question of law rather than a question of fact.
In an interview with the Telegraph, the director of the National Secular Society, Keith Porteous Wood, warned that individuals who criticize the spread of Islamic Sharia law in Britain could be deemed racist, and silenced through an EDO. He said:
"The Government should have every tool possible to tackle extremism and terrorism, but there is a huge arsenal of laws already in place and a much better case needs to be made for introducing draconian measures such as Extremism Disruption Orders, which are almost unchallengeable and deprive individuals of their liberties.
"Without precise legislative definitions, deciding what are 'harmful activities of extremist individuals who spread hate' is subjective and therefore open to abuse now or by any future authoritarian government."
The Christian Institute, a group that works to protect religious liberty in Britain, warned that the government could use EDOs to suppress Christian viewpoints. The institute's director, Colin Hart, said:
"It's not hard to see how they could be misused against Christians who support traditional marriage or otherwise breach the tenets of the Equality Act. Where will it leave a minister who preaches that salvation is through Christ alone?
"Alarmingly these proposals are even worse than Labour's notorious Religious Hatred Bill or Section 5 of the Public Order Act that were so detrimental to freedom of speech.
"What's more, Theresa May's plans are unnecessary—there are already extensive anti-extremist powers available to the authorities. Yes we need to combat the Islamist threat, but this is not the way to do it.
"In effect the plans set up State gagging orders which are maintained by the threat of prison. You can't protect democracy by undermining its very foundations. The Home Secretary's proposals fly in the face of her very public espousal of 'British values.' Freedom of expression is an essential freedom for any democratic society."
In a statement, the institute's deputy director, Simon Calvert, added:
"Anyone who expresses an opinion that isn't regarded as totally compliant with the Equality Act could find themselves ranked alongside Anjem Choudary, Islamic State or Boko Haram.
"How many times a day do intellectually lazy political activists accuse their opponents of 'spreading hatred'? The left does it, the right does it, liberals do it, conservatives do it, it is routine.
"Hand a judge a file of a thousand Twitter postings accusing this atheist or that evangelical of 'spreading hatred' and they could easily rule that an EDO is needed. It's a crazy idea—the Conservatives need to drop this like a hot brick."
A spokesman for the Conservative Party rejected the criticism, saying, "We have never sought to restrict peaceful protest or free speech, provided it is within the law." He added:
"In Government, Conservatives have always tried to strike the right balance on freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, freedom to manifest one's religion, and the need to protect the public.
"Our proposal to introduce Extremism Disruption Orders reflects the need to go further on challenging the threat from extremism and those who spread their hateful views so that we can keep that democratic society safe."
If the new proposal is enacted, it would not be the first time that the government has expanded the applicability of laws that were originally designed to crack down on Islamic extremism.
In October, Ofsted, the official agency for inspecting schools, downgraded a Jewish school for failing to promote "British values" as required by new regulations that were enacted in June.
The so-called "Trojan Horse" regulations came in response to an alleged plot by Muslim fundamentalists to Islamize state-funded schools in England and Wales. Subsequent inspections found that many schools had indeed come under the influence of Islamic radicals.
In response, then British Education Secretary Michael Gove announced that the government would require all 20,000 primary and secondary schools to "promote British values." These values include the primacy of British civil and criminal law, religious tolerance and opposition to gender segregation.
In an inspection report dated October 27, Ofsted downgraded the Beis Yaakov High School for girls in greater Manchester for failing to promote Islam and homosexual rights. The report states:
"There are major gaps in students' spiritual, moral, social and cultural development. Students are not provided with sufficient opportunities to learn about or understand people of other faiths or cultures. The school does not promote adequately students' awareness and tolerance of communities which are different to their own. As a result, the school does not prepare students adequately for life in modern Britain. This means that the school is failing to give its students an acceptable standard of education."
Separately, Ofsted inspectors who visited an Orthodox Jewish primary school in mid-October sparked outrage after they asked 13-year-old pupils whether they know how babies are made and whether they know any homosexuals.
According to the National Association of Jewish Orthodox Schools (NAJOS), one ninth-grade pupil said she felt "uncomfortable and upset" after inspectors told pupils that a "woman might choose to live with another woman and a man could choose to live with a man, it's up to them."
Another girl in eleventh-grade said: "They made us feel threatened about our religion. They asked 'Do you have friends from other religions?' They asked this many times until we answered what they wanted us to say."
In a statement, NAJOS said: "Ofsted inspectors have been asking pupils inappropriate and challenging questions, many of which fall outside the religious ethos and principles at orthodox Jewish faith schools."
NAJOS director Jonathan Rabson, added: "This confrontational approach by inspectors is a worrying trend that has never been seen before in the UK Jewish community. We fear it suggests a shift in policy towards faith schools."
Rabbi David Meyer, the director of Partnership for Jewish Schools (PaJeS), an educational oversight body, said:
"We are seeing a worrying trend of Ofsted inspectors showing a lack of respect for the values and traditions of our community.
"Multiculturalism isn't about conforming to one standard, but celebrating differences of perspectives, and so long as they are founded on tolerance and mutual respect, should be valued and protected.
"Rather than promoting the values, our schools are feeling that our ethos is being undermined and we are being treated in a very harsh fashion."
The Chief Operating Officer of Ofsted, Matthew Coffey, rejected the accusations of inappropriate questioning, saying:
"Inspectors must ask questions which probe the extent to which pupils are prepared for the next stage in their education, or employment, or for life in modern Britain.
"I am sorry if these questions seemed insensitive or offensive. Inspectors use age-appropriate questions to test children's understanding and tolerance of lifestyles different to their own."
Meanwhile, Ofsted has warned the Trinity Christian School, a small independent school in Reading, that it is being downgraded and may even be closed for not inviting a Muslim imam to lead a chapel service. By refusing to do so, Ofsted says, the school, which caters to pupils up to the age of eight, is failing to "actively promote" harmony between different faiths.
Soeren Kern is a Senior Fellow at the New York-based Gatestone Institute. He is also Senior Fellow for European Politics at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter.