Hate law threat to academic freedom

August 19, 2005

Postgraduates say that researchers should not be scared about speaking out

The right of academics to use their research to speak out on controversial topics is being threatened by self-censorship in universities, postgraduates have warned.

Research students believe that proposed religious hatred laws and the spread of political correctness on campus is stifling the freedom of academics.

The fears emerged at last week's annual conference of the National Postgraduate Committee, the body representing the interests of postgraduate students in UK universities.

The conference, held at Strathclyde University, heard that postgraduates in social sciences and theological and religious studies departments are seen as being at greatest risk of potential clampdowns.

One delegate, who wished to remain anonymous, said he had already come under pressure to revise a paper in which he had said that a minority of Muslims were prepared to use violence in pursuit of their aims.

"I was told I couldn't put that, and would have to take it away and change it since it could be seen as racist," he said.

"I was told that, with hindsight, it was an unwise topic to approach."

Another delegate claimed that there were signs of a kneejerk reaction from universities to the London bombings, with researchers backing away from tackling subjects that could be considered controversial.

Jim Ewing, former general secretary of the NPC, said: "The concern is that this is a threat to academic freedom, because people are already erring on the side of caution and are frightened of doing things in case they break the law."

Mr Ewing has been collating postgraduates' views with the aim of setting out a definitive NPC statement to help researchers who come under pressure to avoid or tone down research linked to faith issues.

The consensus at the conference was that researchers reserved the right to discuss any topic, regardless of who it might offend, provided that they could back their statements.

It would then be up to anyone who objected to refute the arguments.

There was general agreement that the context within which remarks by academics were made was crucial, and that the constraints of political correctness should not be allowed to undermine academic discussion.

Universities already had ethics committees to assess the topics being tackled by researchers, and individual departments or academics should not impose further restrictions, the postgraduates argued.

The Government's Racial and Religious Hatred Bill would create a new offence of incitement to religious hatred - applying to any comments made in public, in the media or in written material.

The aim is to protect people from incitement to hatred against them because of their faith.

* Simon Felton, from Birmingham University, was voted in as the new NPC general secretary.

olga.wojtas@thes.co.uk

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