Scholars demand right to be offensive

December 22, 2006

Academics call for a change in law to ensure complete freedom of speech in universities. Phil Baty reports

The "unrestricted liberty" to be offensive to others without fear of sanction forms the foundation of a radical statement of academic freedom proposed this week by an influential group of scholars.

The statement, launched by 64 academics including philosopher A. C. Grayling, would extend the current law that ensures that academics are free to "question and test received wisdom, and to put forward unpopular opinions".

If adopted in law, it would give all academics the unfettered right to speak out on any issue, "both inside and outside the classroom", whether or not it was part of their area of academic expertise and "whether or not these [issues] were deemed offensive".

Most provocatively, this 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.

The statement would also offer backing to Andrew McIntosh, professor of thermodynamics at Leeds, who has been sharply criticised for claiming that the world is only 6,000 years old and that evolutionary theory is wrong.

The statement has been published by Academics for Academic Freedom ( www.afaf.org.uk ). Among the signatories as The Times Higher went to press were Steve Fuller, the Warwick University sociologist, and Simon Davies, co-director of the Policy Engagement Research Group at the London School of Economics.

Professor Davies says on the group's website: "I'm deeply worried about the number of academics who flee in terror at the slightest wisp of controversy. Rather than engage the world in a spirit of challenge, too many academics have been sedated by an oppressive environment of political correctness and risk aversion."

The group's official statement says: "In today's political climate, it is harder than ever for academics to defend open debate. Restrictive legislation and the bureaucratic rules and regulations of quangos and of universities themselves have undermined academic freedom.

"Many academics are fearful of upsetting managers and politicians by expressing controversial opinions. Afraid to challenge mainstream thought, many pursue self-censorship."

Signatories also include Times Higher columnists Frank Furedi of Kent University and Gary Day of De Montfort University.

Christie Davies, professor of sociology at Reading University, said: "I agree entirely with this statement of academic freedom. Anyone who does not is a hireling, not a scholar. No ifs, no buts."

The group is led by Dennis Hayes, joint president of the University and College Union, head of the Centre for Professional Learning, Canterbury Christ Church University, and a leading member of the Institute of Ideas.

He said: "As always, we should have the model of Socrates in our minds and be prepared to be charged with denying all gods and corrupting youth."

But a statement this week from Roger Kline, head of equality at the UCU, raises some concerns. He says: "We should distinguish between the crucial right of an academic to question and test received wisdom and any suggestion that this is the same as an unlimited right of a university academic to express, for example, anti-Semitic, homophobic or misogynist abuse where they were using a position of authority to bully students or staff, or potentially breach the duty of care that universities have towards students or staff.

"If we confuse academic freedom with individuals abusing a position of power, we could actually undermine academic freedom in the long term."

Juliet Adams, operations manager of the Equality Challenge Unit, said academic freedom, like free speech, had to be balanced against other laws and the need to "promote responsible debate".

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