Leader: Will no-go areas diminish us all?

March 31, 2006

Which takes precedence: academic freedom, as enshrined in the Education Reform Act, or the Race Relations (Amendment) Act? There is no doubt in the minds of administrators at Leeds University, or most of those who have written to this newspaper since Frank Ellis's views on race and intelligence hit the headlines. Nor should there be. Freedom of speech, academic or otherwise, does not extend to shouting "fire" in a crowded place and neither can it excuse conduct that strays beyond the boundaries of civilised behaviour enshrined in law after extensive debate.

Due process within the university will determine whether Dr Ellis has transgressed, but the case raises delicate questions for the academic world.

Are there to be no-go areas - notably race and, in future, possibly religion - for academic discourse? The arguments put forward in The Bell Curve and similar theses were discredited through open examination. But it is difficult to see how those who genuinely believe today's received wisdom to be mistaken will be able to advance a hypothesis. Hardline anti-racists may sneer at the liberalism of those who weigh academic freedom in the balance in such cases, but there are conflicting principles at stake.

Universities have a duty to protect minority students and staff, as well as to respect the communities around them. That must be their overriding priority, but they do their students and society a disservice if within that framework they discourage robust debate on any subject. Already there is a proposal that Sussex University should reopen the case of Geoffrey Sampson, who was not disciplined despite expressing similar views to Dr Ellis's in 2002. Like Dr Ellis, Professor Sampson was straying well beyond his area of expertise, but Sussex distinguished between his personal views and those affecting his students. The tests of intent and impact, suggested by Universities UK's guide to promoting good campus relations, are crucial in such cases. Even where race is concerned, a distinction can be drawn between private views and those calculated to cause distress.

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