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



On 7th March, the National Secular Society issued a warning that a proposed new definition of "extremism" could have “far-reaching consequences for free speech”.



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


Toby Young, General Secretary of the Free Speech Union, also warned that the new definition, which includes phrases like “aims to… negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others”, could one day be applied to “gender critical feminists, anti-abortion activists and other bêtes noires of metropolitan radicals”.


What is the new definition of extremism?

The new definition states that extremism is “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to:

  1. negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or

  2. undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or

  3. intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2)”.

The government said it was “narrower and more precise” than the previous definition, which was introduced in 2011.


Not a ban, but blocked from government funding

Groups that meet the definition will not be criminalised (unlike terrorist groups) but they will be blocked from government funding and meetings with officials. Communities Secretary Michael Gove told MPs that the UK’s values were “under challenge” from extremist groups, which were radicalising young people. He listed organisations that he said were a “cause for concern” under the new definition and would be assessed. They include:

  • Patriotic Alternative – alleged to be a fascist group promoting Nazi thinking. They criticised the new definition as a “dangerous step toward a totalitarian state”.

  • British National Socialist Movement – described in Parliament as a “white supremacist group”

  • Muslim Association of Britain – described by Michael Gove as the UK affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, an international network of Islamist organisations. The Muslim Association of Britain described the new definition as “blatant effort to stifle dissenting voices”.


The National Secular Society's warning (which came out before Mr Gove unveiled the new definition) highlighted that the established Church of England and the monarchy are amongst the country’s institutions, and that “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 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.


Please comment below. Do you think it's dangerous or necessary for the government to have a definition of “extremism”?

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Eric Hayman
Eric Hayman
Apr 01

"What is the new definition of extremism?

The new definition states that extremism is “the promotion or advancement of an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance, that aims to:

  1. negate or destroy the fundamental rights and freedoms of others; or

  2. undermine, overturn or replace the UK’s system of liberal parliamentary democracy and democratic rights; or

  3. intentionally create a permissive environment for others to achieve the results in (1) or (2)”."


"an ideology based on violence, hatred or intolerance". I can think of one "ideology" that is inherently intolerant. But it is a religion. And freedom to practise one's religion is 'a human right'.

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Presumably it is an attempt to draw a line between "practising one's religion" and promoting extremism.

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