British judge rejects legal challenge to counter-terrorism strategy

LONDON (Reuters) - A British judge rejected on Wednesday a case brought against the government’s counter-terrorism strategy, according to lawyers for the claimant, a Muslim activist.

Salman Butt, 31, had claimed the government’s “Prevent” program breached his right to free speech as it imposed a duty on universities to stop radicals by restricting some speakers from addressing students.

Rejecting Butt’s case, Judge Duncan Ouseley ruled that universities could disregard the advice in certain cases and that the right to free speech was not restricted, the lawyers said.

The “Prevent” program is aimed at halting the spread of radical ideology, attempting to address such issues as the dissemination of material online and through public speakers.

It has come under heavy fire in recent years, with critics saying it stigmatizes individuals and breeds distrust within communities, potentially even pushing more people towards extremism.

The interior ministry was not immediately available for comment on the court case.

Butt, who is not accused of supporting militant groups or violence, told Reuters last year that he felt the definition of an extremist was narrowing and that the government’s approach was having a destructive impact on society.

The case revolved around a September 2015 interior ministry document which outlined new guidance for British universities and colleges to counter extremism on campuses. It cited Butt as a person who expressed views contrary to British values.

Butt had also argued that collection and dissemination of his personal data by a government counter-terrorism unit was unlawful and amounted to surveillance.

He plans to seek the right to appeal against Ouseley’s decision to reject this argument.

A separate defamation case against the ministry related to Butt’s inclusion in the press release is ongoing.

In a statement released via his lawyers, Butt said that although disappointed with the ruling, he was pleased previously “secretive and opaque” processes had been held up to scrutiny.

“This is the first step in a long process of holding our government to account for arbitrary restrictions on the rights of any citizen,” he said.

Editing by William James and Gareth Jones