Heroes and Zeros

This is AFAF’s assessment of who we think are academic freedom’s ‘heroes’ and ‘zeros’ each month.

May 2020

Our Hero of the month is the University of Oxford. The University rejected a Student Union demand to ban what they labelled ‘academic hate speech’ (see below). The university gave this statement to The Oxford Blue: ‘Free speech is the lifeblood of a university. It enables the pursuit of knowledge. It helps us approach truth…  [a university] should never prevent speech that is lawful … Inevitably, this will mean that members of the University are confronted with views that some find unsettling, extreme or offensive … The University must therefore foster freedom of expression within a framework of robust civility. Not all theories deserve equal respect … Wherever possible, they should also be exposed to evidence, questioning and argument … neither speakers nor listeners should have any reasonable grounds to feel intimidated or censored.’

Our Zero of the month is the University of Oxford Student Union for passing an ‘Academic Hate Speech Motion’ intended to establish a new policy prohibiting what they saw as ‘hate speech’ within the University. This would include anything they believed constituted ‘incitement of hatred on the grounds of gender identity, disability, and socio economic status, including to trans, non-binary, disabled, working-class, and women’. The Oxford Student reported that the motion also mandated the SU ‘to lobby for trigger warnings on readings lists and for lectures, tutorials, and examinations with content deemed prejudicial against the aforementioned groups to be non-compulsory for students. It asserts that arguments based on “free speech policy are inapplicable” when students are “required by the University to listen to the speech in question”.’

April 2020 (The Coronavirus Month when all universities were closed)

Our Heroes of the Month are the academics who write for The Full Brexit. They have maintained a much-needed critical voice about the politics that drive the response to the coronavirus.  

Our Zeros of the month are the University Hospitals, and other NHS trusts, that are forbidding staff to speak out about coronavirus issues.

March 2020

Our half Hero of the month is Toby Young of the Free Speech Union who wrote to the Proctors of the University of Oxford to protest against the de-platforming of Amber Rudd. This was a welcome move but the Proctors then de-registered (no platformed) the UNWomen Oxford UK Society. Young was wrong to celebrate this. A lesson for all defenders of free speech is not to call for, or condone, bans and proscriptions.

Our Zero of the month is the University of Sheffield Students’ Union that is attempting to gag the newly-formed free speech society by demanding that it seeks prior approval for all its events.

February 2020

Our first Hero of the month is Professor Karen Cox, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Kent, who has stood firm against demands to cancel a lecture on Class to be given in March by Professor Selina Todd. Todd is accused of being a transphobe by eighty UKC Academics and dozens from other universities.

Our second Hero of the month is UCU for Academic Freedom (UCU4AF), a group of academics asking candidates in the UCU National Executive Elections to support academic freedom.

Our Zero of the month is what will be the new executive of the University and College Union (UCU). Many candidates for national office in the current round of elections stated in an open letter that trans issues should not be discussed in universities. They claimed that ‘free speech’ on these and other matters was a ‘transphobic’ and ‘neo-fascist’ conspiracy.

January 2020

The first Hero of the month is Julia Rynkiewicz, a midwifery student at the University of Nottingham, who fought against her suspension from her hospital placement because of complaints from academics about her pro-life views. She also faced a fitness to practice investigation.  Her suspension was overturned but she will now graduate a year behind her peers.  Laurence Wilkinson, legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom International, said that her experience “represents a very chilling prospect for freedom of speech on campus”.

The second Hero of the month is the Wilberforce Society, the UK’s oldest student society, based in Cambridge. The society sent its speaker, the comedian Konstantin Kisin, a free speech ‘Behavioural Agreement’ which could be a model for many student societies. As Kisin said on Facebook, “SOAS take note!” as he had refused to speak there a year earlier because of their censorious ‘agreement’. Here is an extract from the agreement:

This contract has been written to ensure an environment where all ideas can be put forward and fully criticised. By signing this contract, you are agreeing to our no tolerance policy with regards to lying to protect yourself or the audience, or hiding the truth for fear of being smeared.

All topics must be presented in a way that is honest and in good faith. No topics cannot be discussed. It must be done in a civil but completely honest way.

The First (absolute) Zero of the month is the University of Sheffield for employing 20 students at £9.34 an hour to police ‘microaggressions’. A ‘microaggression’ is speech that is so subtly offensive most people would think it is innocent or, at worst, just crass. One of the examples the University gives of this appalling speech is ‘Why are you searching for things to be offended about?’ The Vice-Chancellor, Koen Lamberts, claimed the plan was to start ‘conversations’ about race. Perhaps students and staff at the University should ask him and the language police just that: “Why are you searching for things to be offended about?”

The second Zero of the month is Merton College, University of Oxford, for requiring attendees at a forthcoming ‘Equality Conversation’ event to: “refrain from using language or putting forward views intended to undermine the validity of trans and gender diverse identities”. After academics expressed concerns about academic freedom the College replaced the censorious statement with a declaration about free speech.

December 2019

The Hero for December is Kathleen Stock, a professor of philosophy at the University of Sussex. Stock responded to an Employment Tribunal ruling that upheld Maya Forstater’s dismissal, from the Centre for Global Development, for repeatedly expressing the view that people can’t change sex.  Writing in Medium on 18 December she attacked the decision as a threat to free thought and to philosophical thinking in particular.  She said:

I therefore call upon the British Philosophical Association, all learned Philosophical societies in the UK, and all British academic philosophers working in UK departments, to stand up and say out loud — or better, write it down where members of the public can read it: people should be legally permitted to believe that biological sex is immutable and cannot be changed, without fear of losing their jobs. You are philosophers. This is your moment. If not now, then when?

The Zero is the University of York after the head of the English department apologised to students who were offended when they came across the word ‘negro’ in lectures about the work of the African- American sociologist W. E. B. Dubois and the Martiniquian anti-colonialist writer Frantz Fanon.  She suggested a trigger warning be given to disassociate lecturers from the views they were discussing. Sociologist Professor Frank Furedi commented: “The obsession with the policing of language has become a caricature of itself. The word negro, which was used by pan-Africanists to refer to themselves, is now rebranded as a source of distress by students who do not have a clue about what racism means”.

November 2019

The Hero of the month has to be Maya Nerissa Thomas, an undergraduate student reading history at the University of Oxford, who set up the Oxford Society for Free Discourse. She was interviewed about her views in The Oxford Student. Maya joins a growing list of students such as Peter Anson, the founder of Liberate the Debate, who are setting up free speech societies to counter the chilling of free speech on campus.

The Zero of the Month is Oxford Brookes University which cancelled a talk by feminist artist Rachel Ara after a complaint by students denouncing her as a Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF). Ara appears on The Banned List but Brookes gets a special mention here for the bureaucratic way it avoided the charge of censorship according to the Oxford Mail: “The university has taken the decision to postpone a lecture as it had not been booked through the usual process for confirming external speakers. Postponement will allow appropriate time to ensure this process takes place”. Such manoeuvres exemplify how universities engage in institutional denial of the climate of censorship on campus.

October 2019

Hero number one is Professor Elizabeth Kiss, an American philosopher and former Rhodes scholar, who became warden of Rhodes House, Oxford in August 2019. She is responsible for Rhodes scholarships but, according to The Times, Professor Kiss refused to change the scheme name in response to student demands. She said: “If we change the name what do we gain? The legacy is still there. You are just running away from it. All of us, not just Rhodes scholars, are products and beneficiaries of very morally complex legacies. In bearing the name Rhodes scholars are challenged continually to confront that and engage with it”.

The second Hero is sociologist Dr Stuart Waiton, a senior lecturer in sociology and criminology at Abertay University, Dundee. Dr Waiton argued on Sky News, that the revulsion about Nazi salutes at a football match had turned into a moral panic. His university ‘distanced’ itself from his comments and he was vilified on social media as a racist, a fascist and a white supremacist. Dr Waiton did not capitulate to threats and abuse but continued to explain his position in the press.  

Zero number one is the Oxford University Student Union which voted to ‘mandate the encouragement of silent clapping’ of ‘jazz hands’ at union events to avoid ‘triggering’ vulnerable students.  Writing in the Daily Mail, Emeritus Professor Frank Furedi, a distinguished sociologist, warned: ‘Some might dismiss ‘jazz hands’ as nothing more than the kind of frivolous, attention-seeking behaviour to which student unions have always resorted. But the situation is far worse. The Oxford policy is important because it symbolises our culture’s slide into infantalised decadence, where enfeeblement is celebrated and learned helplessness indulged’. Furedi argued that academic freedom will be undermined if people continue to see students as potential victims in need of safeguarding rather than as resilient adults.

The second Zero is Sheffield Students’ Union which banned white students from attending focus groups on ‘How we can create an anti-racist Students’ Union’. This act of censorship was said to be a move from being ‘non-racist to actively anti-racist’ but was widely condemned as being itself an example of racism and an attack on the academic freedom of undergraduates.  

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