More support call for unfettered freedom

January 12, 2007

Some 225 people have signed up to support a proposed new legal definition of "academic freedom" that would give scholars the unfettered right to offend others, without fear of sanction.

The Times Higher reported in December that a new campaign, Academics for Academic Freedom, had been launched by 64 UK scholars including philosopher A. C. Grayling and Simon Davies, co-director of the Policy Engagement Research Group at the London School of Economics.

The statement, if adopted in law, would give support to Frank Ellis, the Leeds University lecturer in Russian and Slavonic studies who took early retirement before a disciplinary case over his comments that white people were more intelligent than black people.

It goes much further than current law, which defends academics' right to "question received wisdom" and to put forward controversial and "unpopular" opinions.

Since the launch, the campaign has gone global, with scholars from the US, Australia, Germany, Portugal, Israel and elsewhere signing up.

As The Times Higher went to press, 225 people had added their names to the website www.afaf.org.uk .

But the statement has prompted some strong opposition, with critics citing existing equality laws that protect minority groups, which they say everyone must respect.

Dennis Hayes, AFAF founder and joint president of the University and College Union, welcomed the "widespread and positive response" to the statement, which he said "launched a national debate over the Christmas vacation".

But Dr Hayes, a leading member of the Institute of Ideas, which has roots in the Revolutionary Communist Party, raised the spectre of major splits over the statement within the UCU, when he attacked the "old Left" for failing to support the statement.

He said: "It was disappointing to see that some of the old Left remained vitriolic defenders of censorship and bans on all they dislike rather than recognising the contemporary threats to academic freedom.

"Unlike them, I stick with Marx's view that we must defend the two hard-won rights of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly as ways of advancing humanity."

He said that he was less surprised that "not a single vice-chancellor or chancellor has yet supported the statement. Perhaps they are too risk-conscious and obsessed with the law to defend the value that defines the institutions they run."

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