Posted tagged ‘freedom of expression’

Brexit perspectives in the academy

October 25, 2017

Apparently like all university heads in the United Kingdom, I received a letter this week from Mr Chris Heaton-Harris MP, a Conservative Whip in the House of Commons and, as his own website states, a ‘fierce Eurosceptic’. In his letter, Mr Heaton-Harris asks me to supply him with the names of professors ‘who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit’. He also wants copies of any syllabus and links to online lectures ‘which relate to this area’. The letter gives no indication of why he wants this information or what he proposes to do with it.

The story of this letter has been widely disseminated over the past day or so, and it would be fair to say that he has been roundly criticised for sending it by pretty much everyone, including some who are in favour of Brexit. As a Times newspaper editorial points out, if Mr Heaton-Harris had legitimate reasons, unrelated to any desire to stifle pro-EU voices in the academy, he should have said what they were. In the absence of such details, the fierce Eurosceptic might appear to have motives to limit freedom of expression – though he himself is adamant that this is not his intention (while still not saying what is his intention). Meanwhile the UK Universities Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP, has spoken on his behalf to suggest that he now regretted sending the letter.

Anyway, yesterday the airwaves and cyberspace were full of people expressing indignation at Mr Heaton-Harris, who, it was suggested, was practising ‘Leninism’. Actually I doubt that Vladimir Ilyich, were he to return now, would regard Mr Heaton-Harris as a soulmate, so maybe we should leave some of the more over-excited responses to his letter to one side. I suspect he was indeed up to no good, but I’m not too worried about his capacity to achieve much.

But Mr Heaton-Harris is not the only star in this particular B-movie. He was preceded by others, politicians, and newspapers, who have argued that in one way or another expressions of opinion criticising Brexit or calling for a continuing membership of the UK in the European Union are not acceptable and undermine the will of the people (which by now may be different from that expressed in June 2016, for all we know). And so while we should all calm down about the MP’s letter, we should reflect a little more about a tendency to incite a public mood of intolerance that may be showing up here. Specifically, a university must always be a safe forum for the expression of all legal views and opinions, however unpopular they may be; and this should not be put at risk either by politicians or, indeed, by groups of students. But more generally, Brexit advocates – even Brexit fanatics – must accept that their views have not become mandatory as a result of the referendum. Freedom of expression must flower, no matter what. And if that bothers you, it means that your position is probably a weak one. Work on that.

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How fundamental is free speech fundamentalism?

February 3, 2015

The Charlie Hebdo atrocity has, particularly after the dust settled a little, prompted (as some might have expected) more detailed debate about the nature and limits of free speech in a liberal democratic society. Some of the debate, as we’ll get to in a moment, concerns free speech in an academic or university setting. But let us look first at the wider issues.

Immediately following the events in Paris there were demonstrations all over the world to reaffirm the right of journalists and commentators to offer their views, however uncomfortable or indeed offensive these might be, without having to fear for their lives. Je suis Charlie became the banner of this movement.

But not everyone joined in. The journalist Mehdi Hasan, writing in the New Statesman, questioned the credentials of ‘free speech fundamentalists’:

‘None of us believes in an untrammelled right to free speech. We all agree there are always going to be lines that, for the purposes of law and order, cannot be crossed; or for the purposes of taste and decency, should not be crossed.’

So is free speech protected only to the extent that it is not prohibited or discouraged, as that quote would suggest? If that were so, would it amount to much? And in particular, who is the arbiter of ‘taste and decency’? Is my objection to someone saying something enough to put that statement out of bounds? Do I have, as has been debated for a while now, a ‘right not to be offended’?

For those of us working in higher education, this raises particularly complex issues. Most of our institutions have, thankfully, students and staff from a large number of countries and cultures. While inviting them to learn and to engage with scholarship, we also try to present them with an hospitable and supportive environment. People away from home can be particularly vulnerable, and we should recognise that. But again, what does this mean when it comes to the substance of debate, in particular where that substance may be uncomfortable to some?

The website Spiked Online has now produced a league table of UK universities that ranks them according to their attitude to freedom of speech and to censorship. It suggests that 23 universities (including mine) have a ‘hands-off approach to free speech’, 45 have ‘chilled free speech through intervention’, and 47 have ‘banned and actively censored ideas on campus’. Those universities that do not, in the view of the compilers of this survey, support free speech have in many cases banned offensive speech or taken similar measures, such as excluding speakers from the campus where their views were not considered appropriate.

It is easy to feel that universities must not allow students and others to be made uncomfortable on the campus when others attack their beliefs or their ethos. On the other hand, universities are places where knowledge should be pursued regardless of whether that knowledge pleases or disturbs people. Censorship on the campus in one context may undermine scholarly integrity in another.

It is easy to agree with Mehdi Hasan, as I do, that some lines should not be crossed by considerate people. I would hate to offend someone’s deeply held convictions, assuming these convictions are within the law. But I would also hate to be part of something that confines academic investigation to things that do not bother anyone. Censorship on the campus is not something we should want to see grow, not least because the expression and the challenging of our opinions and views is, fundamentally, the thing that matters most in scholarship.

Academic freedom and the McCarthy instinct

April 3, 2011

One recent development in the United States that we should find alarming is the new tendency to investigate the political opinions of professors to see if the expression of these might offend someone’s sensibilities. This article in the Washington Post newspaper gives several example of (mostly conservative) organisations that have been attempting to get information about the political activities of academics with a view to asserting that these activities, if politically partisan, are in some way an abuse of their academic freedom.

Whether academic freedom should cover the expression of opinions that are unrelated to the academic’s area of expertise is something that can legitimately be debated, but professors like everyone else should have the right to express their opinions on political issues, and it is an abuse of fundamental rights to seek to restrict that, unless the opinions are in some ways an incitement to hatred or discrimination.

Political witch hunts are never good news for a liberal democratic society. Where they occur they need to be fought.