Leader: Caution not censorship

December 17, 2004

The boundaries of academic freedom have been debated constantly in these pages over recent weeks. In this edition alone, Steven Plaut and Neve Gordon espouse contrasting principles in relation to academic engagement in Israel, while Richard Yuill's research on sexual relationships with children continues to arouse strong feelings both for and against. In the midst of such controversy, and bearing in mind the increasingly litigious climate in which universities operate, perhaps it is understandable that Durham University should want to forearm its staff before they focus on contentious subjects. But the idea of academics having to seek ethical approval from a teaching and learning committee before broaching topics such as slavery and witchcraft sounds more like a Laurie Taylor column than serious news.

Of course academics must be aware of the sensitivities of their audience, but universities have to be places of open debate. Students should be exposed to views with which they may not be comfortable, if only so that they learn to challenge them. No departmental committee can exercise those judgements without turning higher education into an anodyne process of diminished value.

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