Outrage at orders not to mention the war

April 4, 2003

Vice-chancellors are suppressing free speech and curtailing academic freedom in the debate over war in Iraq, lecturers' leaders claim, writes Phil Baty.

A proposed motion to the Association of University Teachers' annual conference next month warns: "AUT council notes with the greatest concern that the managements of certain universities have attempted to restrict discussion of the war against Iraq both in the classroom and outside it.

Whatever your view of the war, this is an issue of intellectual freedom, professional integrity and free speech."

The motion, to be discussed by the Newcastle University AUT next week, adds: "A university is a community of learning in which ideas must be freely exchanged if understanding is to advance."

Newcastle academics have reacted badly to an email sent to all staff by vice-chancellor Christopher Edwards.

Professor Edwards wrote: "The university's position is that any protest must be a private matter." He warned against staff converting teaching classes into discussions about the war.

At least 79 staff signed a letter to Professor Edwards saying they had a right as educators to discuss issues of pressing concern.

A spokesman for Newcastle said that the vice-chancellor was not trying to constrain debate but was simply objecting to the potential use of university lectures as a forum for discussing the war.

There has also been criticism of a memo from the Open University's director of communications, Derek Prior. Mr Prior instructed staff not to use the university's email system for "your own personal/political activities".

He said such activity could involve the university in action that could endanger staff and students or compromise the institution's reputation, and could lead to staff being disciplined. A spokesman for the OU said there was no restriction on academic debate or work-related activity.

Students have also been caught up in war-related rows over free speech. At Birmingham University, the Guild of Students has angered academics and students by passing a resolution that seems to ban student societies from campaigning against the war.

Dubbed the "don't mention the war" motion, it states that the guild should have no policy on "any potential or actual controversial foreign conflict" and that student societies affiliated to the guild "are not allowed to take a stance on foreign issues".

Birmingham lecturer Sue Blackwell, a member of Birmingham University Against the War, said: "The university has always upheld the statute guaranteeing academic freedom, so it is tragic that the students' union is doing the opposite."

At Stirling University - one of many universities brought to a standstill last week by war protests - local Conservative MP Brian Monteith said that the university was "more like the University of Baghdad" when it ordered students to take down national flags from the windows of halls of residence rooms.

In the US, 120 student protesters at the University of California, Berkeley, were arrested after marching into the administration building and 39 protesters at Ohio University were charged with disorderly conduct.

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