Clever conceit won't protect free speech

May 21, 2009

The group Academics for Academic Freedom (AFAF) confuses freedom of speech with academic freedom, and thus undermines both ("Academics urged to defend free speech without limits", 14 May).

It claims that the latter should include absolute free speech, thereby removing any logic behind the use of the term "academic". The position of the academic is presented as the qualification for being entitled to full free speech. The AFAF does not say what it means by "an academic": is it anyone with a degree; anyone holding a lecturing post; any teacher? Whatever the definition, the result implies that only the AFAF's chosen group is entitled to free speech.

By the same token, by reducing academic freedom to free speech, the AFAF holds that what must be heard need not be the product of research, scholarship or study, nor conform to any academic discipline's criteria for the soundness of investigatory procedure. Rather, it gains its right to an airing because it is said by a professor. This, of course, undermines the concept of academic autonomy.

Academic freedom - the untrammelled autonomy of study and the associated right to publish the results of honest research - is under threat. In higher education, it is almost seen as a right by management to bully and threaten, or even dismiss, academics who fail to toe the line on the desired targets of research for this or that business plan.

Again, a brief review of the intellectual property policies of many institutions shows them seizing the copyright of the work of their employees, an act that automatically gives them the right under law to prevent publication. Free speech, too, alongside benign free action, is being quietly silenced by the surreptitious actions of a paranoid Parliament. To conflate these two important concepts won't defend either.

Whether inside or outside the academy, whether within or without the AFAF's chosen few, we have a real interest in protecting and enhancing the freedom of the academy - and the individual academic - to investigate and report. We also back the freedom of any human being to discuss their views in open and fair debate.

However, such freedoms cannot be achieved by claiming with consummate conceit that these rights properly belong, or especially belong, only to those within the AFAF's self-defined boundary, "academia".

The AFAF builds its barricades for academic freedom by stealing material from the barricades defending free speech - and when that is not possible, it steals from the base of its own barricades. When, in Pastor Martin Niemoller's terms, the state comes for any of us, I hope my first question won't be: "But are they academics?"

Andrew Morgan, Swansea.

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