This principle is not negotiable

July 6, 2007

If monitoring Muslim groups threatens free speech, then surely boycotting Israeli academics does too, says Frank Furedi

It is difficult not to feel dispirited about the lack of academic affirmation for free speech on British campuses. Many lecturers fervently believe in the importance of academic freedom for themselves while indifferent to the predicament faced by their colleagues. Others are very selective about whose academic freedom they take seriously. So some academics took strong exception to the Government's demand that we monitor the activities of radical Muslim groups on campuses. They rightly interpreted this as an attempt to curb free speech and close down discussion. But, sadly, their objection was not always inspired by a genuine conviction that freedom of speech is a fundamental principle that must be defended in all circumstances. In too many cases, UK academics have a selective and pragmatic approach to the right of free speech. Some who are critical of the targeting of Islamic groups believe that undermining the freedom of Israeli academics is a wonderful way to strike a blow for progress.

What they are saying, in effect, is that the promotion of the cause of Palestine is too important to be constrained by the ethos of academic debate. From this standpoint, academic freedom is a negotiable commodity; a right that can be denied to those deemed worthy of punishment. In this case Israeli academics are punished for who they are rather than what they have done.

Consistency is not always a virtue, but it is an absolute necessity when it comes to fundamental principles of democratic rights. Academic freedom cannot be exercised selectively without undermining its authority. Punishing colleagues through denying them their rights does not merely affect them, it also undermines the authority of academic freedom and therefore has a negative impact on everyone who works in a university. By now everyone should know that curbing the freedom of those with whom we disagree always creates a dangerous precedent.

One insidious outcome of the promotion of the boycott tactic is that it encourages others to play the same illiberal game. The application of bureaucratic measures against one group of academics constitutes an invitation to others to follow suit. So it is not surprising that some opponents of the proposed University and College Union boycott have threatened to seek legal remedies and organise their own form of sanctions against British universities. Tragically, this response serves to normalise the belief that the best way of resolving differences is through juridical or administrative means.

In a climate in which the main protagonists are obsessed with the question of whose livelihoods they should wreck, it is important to reaffirm the authority of academic freedom. It is no longer sufficient to criticise the so-called tiny group of obsessive union delegates for bringing academic life into disrepute. Nor is it enough for UCU members to demand a national ballot and reverse the vote. Even if the vote is reversed, the problem will not go away. The ideals of an academic Inquisition are too entrenched to disappear after the verdict of a ballot.

Those of us who adopt a consistent standard for the exercise of democratic rights should become more active and provide more space for giving voice to unpopular causes and stigmatised colleagues. Why not invite an Israeli colleague to our campuses? Better still, why not organise a joint seminar or a collaborative venture with an Israeli academic? Are there any Israeli sociologists interested in doing a couple of guest lectures for my course?

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.

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