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Levels of harassment ‘pose serious threat to our way of life’, adviser says

“Chilling” levels of harassment are posing a “serious threat to our democratic way of life”, the Government’s independent social cohesion adviser has warned.

Ahead of her review which is to be published on Monday, Dame Sara Khan has revealed that polling for her report found more than 75% of the public feel they have to refrain from speaking their mind.

Some 27% have changed their way of life from employing security to moving jobs or house.

As part of her review, Dame Sara is recommending the establishment of an exclusion zone for protests outside schools.

This follows the case of a religious studies (RS) teacher at Batley Grammar School in West Yorkshire who went into hiding three years ago after they showed a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed during a lesson.

According to The Sunday Times, the recommendation is for a ban of all forms of protest activity within 150 metres of schools, except striking teachers on picket lines.

Dame Sara told Sky News’ Sunday Morning with Trevor Phillips: “It’s a shocking example, it still shocks me today, that in our democracy, in this day and age, the fact that a teacher just in the course of his duty was forced into hiding because he was delivering a legitimate educational lesson with no malicious intent.”

She said the teacher was “totally and utterly failed”, adding: “He was not given any support, he was not recognised as a victim by the victims code.

“For example, he was not even recognised as a victim of crime despite the completely life-altering experience he had to go through. I think that’s unacceptable.”

She said such harassment was not limited to Islamic or religious beliefs but was widespread across society with a “chilling” impact on those affected.

Dame Sara said: “In the last couple of months, the focus has been how members of Parliament and those in public life have been at the forefront of experiencing this level of harassment and censorship.

“What my report is going to show for the first time is that this is a much wider problem in our society which is affecting people from all walks of life.

“I’m talking about councillors, journalists, teachers and academics, those working in the arts and cultural sector, who are experiencing severe levels of harassment and abuse, which is then resulting in them self censoring.”

Batley Grammar School protest
Protesters gathered outside Batley Grammar School where a teacher was suspended for reportedly showing a caricature of the Prophet Mohammed to pupils during a religious studies lesson (Danny Lawson/PA)

She said polling for her report showed that more than three-quarters of the public have refrained from expressing their personal opinion in public because of fear that they will receive freedom-restricting harassment and nearly half of the public have witnessed such acts causing them to self-censor.

She added that 27% of the public have suffered “life-altering consequences” causing them to take security measures, changing house or leave their jobs.

Dame Sara said: “That is devastating and the public are unsurprisingly very worried about this.”

She added: “If we care about protecting those democratic rights and freedoms that are so central to us as a nation, my call to the Government is we have to do far more to tackle this threat which is undermining academic freedom, press freedom, the arts and cultural sector and civic society, but it poses a serious threat to our democratic way of life.

“The fact that the scale of this is so significant is, in my view, something that the Government has to deal with.

“So, it’s not about banning groups, it’s about ensuring that our laws are robust enough, our police are looking at harassment cases more effectively.

“But also this is about behaviours, it’s about how do we respect our differences, no matter how much we may have different political opinions or views or beliefs.

“We have to be able to live together in a way that respects and recognises those differences in a plural democracy.”

A spokesman for Batley Multi Academy Trust said: “We are extremely proud of the school and of our community, and how both have moved forward together so positively from the very difficult period in 2021.

“Those events required us to support all our students, their families and our staff, including the teacher involved, for whom we provided counselling and wider support.

“We remain clear that we delivered on our responsibilities and that we followed due process.

“This included immediately establishing an independent investigation, accepting its findings and acting on them.

“We are therefore disappointed by today’s report. We do not recognise much of what is in it, its description of the events, nor the characterisation of our school and community.

“We let the Government know ahead of publication that its draft report contained a number of factual inaccuracies but note that these have not been corrected.

“We are also surprised that the authors of a report on social cohesion decided that the right thing to do was name our school and identify some individuals.

“However, our school and community is in a very positive place and we know that this report will not upset that.”