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How freedom of expression in academia is under threat from academics themselves

This article is part of a global series on academic freedom featuring academic authors from around the world.

Freedom of expression has long been extolled by those who love freedom generally. As George Orwell once said: “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” And, according to the European Court of Human Rights, this includes offending, shocking and disturbing.

Spats, fall-outs and intellectual and personal feuds have long been commonplace among scholars. And, because critiques of ideas and publications are also exercises in freedom of expression, they are integral to the rough and tumble of academic life.

But British universities are now facing much more insidious challenges. Student-led “safe spaces” and “no platforming” campaigns are well known. In 2015, for example, attempts were made to stop veteran feminist campaigner Germaine Greer from giving a lecture at Cardiff University on the grounds that she had previously expressed transphobic views.

Social media have also facilitated mounting intolerance and self-righteous militancy on the part of certain academics themselves. Claims to a monopoly of virtue and wisdom, and narrow conceptions of what is politically and morally acceptable, are being aggressively asserted.

Some seek to affirm their credentials by denouncing, condemning and vilifying others through hostile petitions and mass-signatory letters to the press. These typically demand dismissal, either from editorships of journals, or from scholarly employment altogether.

Others do not shrink from workplace harassment and bullying, including attempts to block the publication of legitimate and lawful opinion before it sees the light of day.

Of course, many attacks on academics occur not in the public eye, but hidden away in the corridors and offices of university faculties. I have been told by colleagues at various institutions of a number of incidents where respected and experienced academics have felt intimidated and harassed by their colleagues – as racists for arguing that certain lawful but controversial public policies are not racist, for example, or as xenophobes for supporting Brexit.

Not every account of such experiences can be authenticated. But the nature of this kind of harassment and hostility has three particularly worrying features.

First, universities have often been coldly indifferent to it. Second, those at the receiving end are understandably anxious to preserve their anonymity for fear of further repercussions. And third, as a result, the scale of the challenge is very difficult to assess. Although attempts have been made to document specific alleged incidents of harassment and no platforming, how the facts are interpreted is inevitably contested.

So what is to be done? The central issue in all cases is not whose views are right and whose wrong. It is rather that unless free and open debate of lawful opinion is preserved, questions of considerable public importance will not be properly examined. The core challenge, therefore, is to ensure mounting threats are effectively addressed without unreasonably curtailing free speech itself.

Legal obligations

For a start, it needs to be more widely recognised that British universities already have statutory obligations to ensure freedom of expression, breach of which may result in legal action. The Education Act requires them to:

Take such steps as are reasonably practicable to ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees and for visiting speakers.

The Higher Education Reform Act 2017 also protects the freedom of academic staff to question received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial opinions without jeopardising their careers.

The Equality Act 2010 further obliges public authorities, including universities, to have due regard to the need to eliminate discrimination, harassment and victimisation with respect to belief, among other things.

Internet safety experts reportedly claim that less than one-quarter of British universities have adequate procedures to deal with harmful and unlawful online conduct by students and staff. The recent publication of guidelines by Universities UK, which represents higher education institutions, is therefore a welcome development.

Whether rudeness and disrespect amount to bullying or harassment is, in the first instance, a personnel management issue. But universities also have, at the very least, a procedural legal duty to consider whether or not this line has been crossed.

If it has, dismissal of those found culpable is likely to be justified in only the most egregious cases. Examples might include calling for a colleague to be sacked merely because their views, though lawful, are unorthodox or unpopular. This may, in any case, also amount to defamation or an unlawful attempt to induce breach of an employment contract.

Reprimands and warnings should, however, be administered more freely wherever appropriate. And other relevant institutions – including the Office for Students and the University and College Union – should take more seriously the threat posed to academic freedom by academics themselves.

Finally, freedom of expression itself offers a potentially powerful resource. Those who exploit it in order to censor the legitimate opinion of others should themselves be named (and sometimes shamed) as publicly as possible.

Read more from our series on Academic Freedom.

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