'Ethics' ruling raises fears for free speech

December 17, 2004

Academics at Durham University must get approval from an "ethics" committee if they want to deliver lectures and tutorials on topics that could cause offence to students. Subjects include euthanasia, abortion and witchcraft.

A memo to staff in arts and humanities, obtained by The Times Higher , states: "All teaching that raises issues that are likely to cause offence to some... must have ethical approval from the departmental teaching and learning committee. It is anticipated that this may cover topics such as race, slavery, witchcraft, abortion, euthanasia, many gender issues etc."

The memo, sent by Alan Heesom, who is dean of arts and humanities, has raised concerns in the faculty about a possible infringement of academic freedom. It is understood that the memo has been replicated in the university's two other faculties.

One academic, who asked not to be named, said: "There has to be freedom to argue about things within the law or universities cannot do their job of teaching students to think critically.

"The habit of taking things personally is not healthy. I should be free to decide how to raise a problematic subject with my students without getting the permission of a committee."

Critics claim that the rules do not sit well with academic freedom, enshrined in the law under the 1988 Education Reform Act. This states that academics should have the "the freedom to question received wisdom and put forward new and possibly controversial ideas".

Academics fear it is another overzealous move towards treating fee-paying students as consumers, ever more aware of their consumer rights and the potential for legal action under antidiscrimination laws.

Professor Heesom told The Times Higher this week that the instruction had "nothing to do with the thought police". "It is not oversensitivity, it is not political correctness. There is no suppression of free speech," he said.

"It is just a clear statement of what our policy is. We have a very clear antidiscrimination policy and that includes, for instance, both implicit and explicit discrimination in the delivery of our teaching."

He said that the university had been the subject of a recent legal case - rejected by the courts - where a student claimed that a member of staff had acted in a discriminatory way towards him during the course of a lecture.

"One has to be aware of that sort of thing and all this document is doing is flagging up to members of staff that they should be aware," he said.

The memo says that to approve a sensitive subject for teaching, "the teaching and learning committee must satisfy themselves that: the subject is academically appropriate; appropriate balance is maintained in delivery and discussion; and appropriate notice is given to students."

Its definition of teaching includes lectures, seminars and tutorials.

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