The Guardian view on universities’ commitments to free speech | Editorial

A community for free expression: that’s how Prof Arbery describes Family Keep Watch Outside the Courthouse, an anti-Muslimophobia campaign launched three months ago to show solidarity with his father following his arrest last summer and the subsequent civil case brought against him by the Ministry of Justice.

An email survey currently being distributed invites Guardian readers to participate in a monthly roundtable and quiz to identify what people care about. There will also be a weekly blogger and tweet and a monthly conference – all with a focus on defending the freedoms Arbery describes as the “defining cause” of his family’s work.

“We live in a society where so many men and women are arrested for simple speech,” says Arbery. “My father is one of the leaders of Islam in the UK and in the US [where he lives]. He is also an American and his experience is very different. Yet he and his family have been vilified and imprisoned while merely voicing their opinion. These are often the kinds of people who are most hated because of their ethnicity and faith. But we could not stand by while a single person has the absolute right to be a different way and receive no protections.”

The project has so far attracted over 100 participants, 30 of whom took part in the podcast which included a roundtable and debate with activist Peter Tatchell, and 12 in-depth questions on topics from police brutality to the role of the Muslim Public Affairs Committee (MPAC). A Q&A with colleague Annie Kelly led to further participation in smaller groups. “Everybody wants to know what is going on outside, what are they saying,” says Arbery. “What are they doing, are they busy with work or they are writing? This is a very practical way of giving people the opportunity to come together. It will be fun and keep people busy, and also very useful as a central forum for their opinions.”

Prof Ahman Arbery, left, and Annie Kelly with one of the survey participants. Photograph: T

Arbery’s father was charged under terrorism legislation after an incident at Harrods when the group of them were twice prevented from entering the store – their protest was critical of a BBC promotion showing the comedian Aamir Khan holding a scarf in a line of women; Arbery alleges that the brand’s attempt to censor his father has inspired widespread discrimination against them in Muslim communities. They had tried to legalise their “family keep watch” campaign by first saying they would take up the legal challenge but were told that it was illegal under UK anti-terrorism legislation.

Instead the Arbery family are seeking a judicial review of the case, arguing that it breaches the UK’s charter of human rights, including the freedom of expression and freedom of religion and belief. As well as material support for terrorism, the conviction could contravene freedom of association by prohibiting and penalising groups not registered as a religion or registered association in law.

“We may win or lose, but this is much bigger than just a case of our family,” says Arbery. “We want more people to know what is happening, and the community around us. To those around us and outside too, we want them to know how important it is to defend free speech in this country. It is a very serious issue which will resonate with people.”

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