Leader: Can academics be entirely free?

December 22, 2006

Who could object to a statement of principle in support of academic freedom? Surely here lies the ultimate "motherhood and apple pie" topic of university life, and the only surprise is that anyone should feel the need to codify it. But important areas of difference can lurk beneath apparent consensus. And it is those areas that the promoters of the current debate are anxious to address. One is the freedom to offend and the other is a licence to criticise university employers. Neither is as straightforward as the group Academics for Academic Freedom suggests.

The roots of the campaign lie in last summer's furore over Frank Ellis's views on race, his suspension by Leeds University and eventual early retirement. This was the classic case study of the tensions between the law and university regulations on one hand, and unfettered freedom of expression and the rights of vulnerable minorities on the other. Dr Ellis's comments strayed well beyond sober academic debate, but many argued that a university should be above censorship and capable of rebutting false doctrines. The legal position was never tested, but there is no doubt that many members of ethnic minorities were offended and may have felt threatened.

The campaign statement is less clear on the boundaries of academic employee rights, but Dennis Hayes includes "McManagement" in his list of groups that should be subject to criticism. Few would argue with that, but it does not follow that academics should be afforded protection that is denied to other employees beyond their field of expertise and inquiry. Similarly, if academics want to express an opinion on the war in Iraq, a citizen's freedom of speech should protect them. Academic freedom rests on different principles relating to an individual's teaching and research.

If the campaign takes off in the new year, it will do the academic world a service by putting these questions to the test. The promoters of the statement are right that debate has often been neutered by self-censorship and oversensitivity. In the wider world, the supposed reluctance of many organisations to celebrate Christmas is one immediate example of protecting those who feel no need of protection and who fear that unwanted action may make them the object of resentment. There are many similar examples from university life, but that does not mean that the "right to offend" should be absolute. To spark a national debate, the statement probably had to be presented in stark terms, but the voice of reality must be heard in the coming months.

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