The spectre of racism remains

November 17, 2006

As a former student of the department of Russian and Slavonic studies at Leeds University, I witnessed the unfolding of the Frank Ellis affair from close quarters and, at times, with no little frustration at the way in which the ensuing debate and disciplinary process were conducted ("What were the lessons learnt from the case of Frank Ellis?", November 2).

While I take heart from the continuing exposure given to this case by your newspaper and by the existence of a seemingly widespread feeling that there are lessons to be learnt, I am concerned that some important issues are in danger of being passed over.

I am personally not sorry to see the back of Ellis. But it was always going to be vital to ensure that both the basis and the process of his arraignment were legitimate and transparent.

There is no doubt that Ellis's published comments offended many people, but few would wish to arrive at a situation where the causing of offence provided sufficient reason to demand a resignation.

The right to free speech, while inviolable, should be balanced by an obligation to consider the climate into which the speech is delivered. It is the very presence of this responsibility that gives the right its value.

In a case such as this, the main problem lies in the inability of legislation to compensate for the failure of an individual to exercise what are, in essence, moral responsibilities. I am not aware in this instance of an allegation that Ellis actively discriminated against any of his students. We are thus forced to make a subjective judgment about the extent to which speech can be deemed an action, for surely it is only deeds that can be considered discriminatory.

There is more that could be said about this discrepancy between moral and legal rules, but perhaps its most troublesome consequence is that it lends credence to the impression of a decision being made more on the basis of appearance than of fact, an impression that gives unwelcome succour to those (such as Ellis) who are prone to see "political correctness" around every corner.

It therefore seems all the more essential to have a genuinely open-minded and non-partisan debate. More could have been done to encourage such a debate while Ellis was still employed by Leeds, and that need has not diminished since his departure.

Ellis's predicament and, more disturbingly, his views were not without supporters at Leeds among students and staff. I would urge the administration and the student union at Leeds and elsewhere not to make the mistake of thinking that the Ellis controversy belongs to the past.

Steven Lovatt

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