Philosopher’s talk cancelled due to passport rules

A UK university has been criticised for cancelling a guest lecture after a British academic refused to produce his passport

November 4, 2016
United Kingdom passport

A philosopher has said he is shocked after he was prevented from speaking at a UK university for failing to provide a copy of his passport.

Jonathan Webber, reader in philosophy at Cardiff University, said that he was stunned after a guest lecture that he was due to give at the University of Hertfordshire was cancelled when he refused to show the document.

“I have given many talks all over the country and have never been asked for any documentation like this,” said Dr Webber, who is president of the British Society for Ethical Theory.

The UK academic, who has held lectureships at the University of Sheffield and the University of Bristol, said that he had refused to hand over a copy of his passport on principle.

“They do not have the right to ask for my passport – they are not my employer; so why should I have to hand it over?” Dr Webber told Times Higher Education.

“They were not paying me for the talk – it was just a normal academic talk that people give all the time at universities,” he added.

Asked what reason Hertfordshire had given for the cancellation of the talk, which was due to take place on 3 November, Dr Webber said that “the only information they sent me was that I had not met their current practices”.

The requirement to send a scan of his passport was only added several weeks after the talk was arranged, he added.

“You are not even required to have a passport in this country,” said Dr Webber, who added that this liberty was “part of what it means to live in a free liberal democracy”.

A Hertfordshire spokeswoman said that the university would continue to “welcome and encourage experts in their field to engage with and impart knowledge to our students”, adding that “this is an important part of their learning experience”.

However, “there are some minimal internal processes that we do ask to be complied with”, she noted.

Since publicising the cancelled talk on Twitter, Dr Webber’s treatment has been described by users as a “chilling bureaucratic attack on academic freedom and personal freedom” and an “utter disgrace to British universities”.

“University asking for passports for speakers to attend…what’s this about? Did they acquire borders?” said another Twitter user.

“British-based British philosopher required to show British passport to give philosophy talk in Britain,” wrote one economist, who added that Dr Webber’s “paper wasn’t on zeitgeist”.

In fact, the talk was actually due to be on the “nature of shame and ethics of lying and misleading”.

“It does feel a bit like an attack, or at least, a tightening of academics’ ability to speak freely, with [administrators] deciding who is allowed to speak on campus,” said Dr Webber.

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Reader's comments (1)

I am late to this discussion. As far as I can see there is no requirement to ask for passports, other than in the employment situation. As far as British citizen's are concerned there seems to be a requirement to have show the passport (or equivalent) in person and for the employer to copy it and keep the copy. Some universities who realise they do not have a copy on file are asking for this because of rather regular Home Office inspections. If they already have a copy then (for UK Citizens) they are exempt from follow-up checks. All this may come as a shock to employees, like myself, concerned about the gradual erosion of our civil liberties.

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