Freedom of speech versus Freedom from offence

December 22, 2006

Academic freedom is not an abstract concept but it exists within the constraints of our society, where academics have certain responsibilities both within the law and to our respective communities.

These rights, like most if not all others, were hard won and exist only while we are able to defend them. In this context I support fully the idea that academics have every right to speak on any matter they may choose, including to question the law, without fear or favour, and regardless of individual subject specialism. I'd go further and argue that true academic freedom can only exist alongside tenure, as is recognised by the United Nations through Unesco and the 1997 Recommendation Concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel .

However, academic freedom cannot be a licence for individuals to abuse their positions and say whatever they so wish outside the law and in a personal capacity and then expect institutional protection from colleagues, unless they have a convincing or at least a reasoned, defensible position.

This is particularly so when the issue is about organised racists and/or fascists denying the right of free speech to others or perhaps inciting violence and discrimination.

I cannot accept that our universities and colleges should be allowed to be used as platforms for such activities under the umbrella of academic freedom. It is totally unacceptable to argue a preposterous position, as for example Frank Ellis appeared to, that black people die of Aids in Africa because their collective IQ is too low to understand the concept of safe sex, that women do not achieve Nobel prizes because they are intellectually inferior and that gay people engage in particular sexual activities because they have a higher propensity towards mind-altering drugs.

If these points have been made publicly it is not a defensible academic position - simply one of bigotry. While Dr Ellis eventually took early retirement in somewhat controversial circumstances, the reality is that photographs of our staff and students taken on campus earlier this year now appear on the ultra-right wing website RedWatch, which calls for extreme acts of violence against those it has been able to name.

The issue, therefore, ceases to be a cosy and abstract academic debate about freedoms but a concrete problem that requires a solution. In this context it is entirely appropriate that we urge our senior managers to uphold their responsibilities under the law to prevent racial and other discriminations on our campuses.

Gavin Reid, president, Leeds University UCU, who led calls for disciplinary action over highly controversial remarks on race and IQ, made by his Leeds colleague, Frank Ellis.The principle of academic freedom is central to the work of higher education institutions, which were established to be places where there is free debate and interchange of ideas. For this to be achieved, there needs to be a climate of tolerance and mutual respect.

We agree that academic staff must have freedom to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without the fear of losing their jobs or being penalised. But these rights must be exercised within the law and will be subject to similar restrictions as those applying to the right of freedom of speech.

That is why, last year, Universities UK produced guidelines on Promoting Good Campus Relations: Dealing with Hate Crimes and Intolerance .

This describes the legal framework of rights and responsibilities, including anti-discrimination legislation and the positive duty under the Race Relations (Amendment) Act.

Les Ebdon, vice-chancellor, Bedfordshire University, and chair, UUK Student Experience Policy Committee

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