Academics For Academic Freedom (AFAF) calls upon Universities UK, the UCU, all VCs and UCU branches to publicly condemn the Islamist murder of teacher Samuel Paty in France, and make their own contribution to an unqualified defence of freedom of speech for all who work within the teaching profession.
On Sunday 19 October, thousands attended demonstrations across France to remember Samuel Paty, a 47-year-old teacher of History and Geography, who was brutally murdered for teaching about the values of freedom of speech and expression in his school. AFAF condemns Paty’s murder and, in honour of his memory, stands unequivocally with his defence of freedom of speech in education… Free speech, no ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’.
Samuel Paty was stabbed and then decapitated in a public street in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, north-west of Paris, on 16 October. His attacker was an 18-year-old Islamist of Chechen origin, Abdoullakh Abouyedovich Anzorov, who was heard at the time to yell “Allahu Akbar!” What had Paty done to provoke such a barbaric act? As he had done for many years, he taught a lesson on the importance of freedom of speech and freedom of thought in France. This was one topic in a civic education course. During the lesson he illustrated the extent of the French nation’s support for freedom of expression by showing the class some of the Charlie Hebdo cartoons of the Prophet Muhammed but he also said that any Muslim students present could look away or leave the room.
Paty was subject to a campaign of vilification on social media and complaints to the school from parents. This led to a Fatwa being declared on Paty by an Islamist group. The murderer, with no evident connection to the school, travelled 62 miles from the town of Évreux to butcher the teacher. The police apprehended and shot the murderer just over six hundred metres from where the killing took place. On his phone was a statement of responsibility and a photo of the butchered body that he had uploaded to Islamist sites on social media.
Condemnations of the killing and defences of free speech were made by many in France – and, indeed, around the world. President Macron visited the school where Paty had taught and said: “One of our compatriots was murdered today for teaching children [about] the freedom of expression, the freedom to believe or not believe”.
The killing was widely reported and condemned by the media in the UK. But there has been a deafening silence from the teacher unions, universities and educational bodies. Outside of the UK Educational International and a French Teachers’ Union made statements.
AFAF surveyed the websites of the teacher unions, a sample of universities, UUK, the Office for Students on Tuesday 20 October but found no comment on Paty’s murder and no contribution to the overwhelming support of freedom of speech seen in France and elsewhere.
One of AFAF’s founding beliefs is that being able to speak and think freely is a cornerstone to academic and educational endeavour: the principle should animate teaching and discussion in our classrooms and lecture halls. Open and sincere interrogation of the varieties of human knowledge and experience is especially important around difficult topics, which includes religious teachings. Indeed, teachers have a special responsibility to model to our pupils and students that speech – both inside and outside of the classroom – should be open, thoughtful and free.
AFAF will be proud to add links to this post to any statements made by the unions, universities and education bodies. See below:
On Wednesday 21 October the National Education Union issued this:
Statement on the murder of French teacher Samuel Paty
“The National Education Union condemns the horrific killing of French teacher, Samuel Paty on Friday 16 October. The joint General Secretaries of the NEU have written letters of condolence and solidarity to our sister union in France and have written to the French Education Minister.
Teachers must have the right to carry out their daily work in safety. No one should face threats or violence in the course of their working lives. Members of the National Education Union in the UK are deeply shocked by the brutal killing of this teacher.
Teaching children and young people about our human rights and inspiring students to play a positive role in society is part of the vital work that teachers across the world carry out diligently every day.
We stand in solidarity with all education staff and students in France at this dreadful and traumatic moment. Mr Paty’s friends, family and colleagues are very much in our thoughts in their time of grief and mourning. We pay tribute to Samuel Paty’s life and join with his French colleagues in commemorating his dedication to the profession of teaching”,
AFAF: What is missing from this statement is any mention of teaching about ‘free speech’ only of teaching about our ‘human rights’. Many people found this part of the statement disingenuous.
On Wednesday 21 October The Future Cities Project issued this statement:
This is a short statement in memory of Samuel Paty, the teacher who was brutally murdered on the outskirts of Paris on 16 October 2020. A national memorial event for Paty was held in France on Wednesday 20 October 2020.
These meagre paragraphs are a show of sympathy, support and solidarity for Paty and more broadly for the idea of free speech, debate and educational open-mindedness that he has come to represent.
In writing this statement, I note that not one word of support has been made by the teachers’ unions in the UK, whether NASUWT, NEU or UCU et al. These organisations, built on a principle of working-class solidarity and support for those under attack, cannot seem to bring themselves to condemn this vicious attack on a fellow teacher. Perhaps it is that they recognise the radical censoriousness of their own institutions, calling as they have been for no platforming, speech codes, trigger warnings, cancel culture and the apartheid logic of critical race theory. For modern-day unions, contentious ideas are something to be frowned upon, condemned or dismissed, rather than engaged in and debated. Paty, unkown by many in the UK until his death, was murdered for raising contentious issues in a moral and civic education class, designed to raise – and more importantly debate – contentious ideas.
As a matter of fact, Paty offered his own trigger warning to students, allowing those who might have felt uncomfortable discussing the Charlie Hebdo cartoons to leave the class. But it was not enough to save him from the extreme logic of cancel culture. Only a few commentators in the UK have been grotesque enough to suggest that Paty “brought it on himself”, but in the aftermath of this attack there has been an increasing sense that we shouldn’t raise difficult issues for fear of retribution. Nothing as extreme as Paty, of course, but the message is: Stay safe. Don’t cause trouble, Keep your head down. Shut your mouth.
To their credit, teaching programmes in France have been encouraging a more confrontational engagement with young students for years as a way of challenging Western nihilism or Islamist fundamentalism in the aftermath of a spate of Islamist terror attacks. Empowering students to think critically, engage with difficult arguments such as debating blasphemy, criticising religion, etc., has been intended to reinforce the cultural supremacy of democratic ideals and the French conceptualisation of intellectual free expression and moral agency.
On the day of Paty’s death, President Macron denounced this attack on a teacher as a symbolic act. The terrorist, he said, “wanted to attack the values of the Republic; the Enlightenment; the possibility to make our children free citizens no matter where they come from, no matter what they believe in or don’t believe in, no matter what their religion… This is an existential fight”.
In the light of that battle, the so-called radical left in the UK have shame-facedly turned their backs on the fight for liberty, and free expression. Teachers unions have looked the other way when a murderous attack was launched against a fellow teacher; which is also an attack against intellectual engagement, confrontational ideas, and the right to engage with challenging opinions. The very stuff of education. Here in the UK, a union is as likely to condemn someone for expressing “illegitimate” beliefs, caling them a fascist, a denier, an illiterate, or merely someone who should be silenced. The logic is there for all to see.
This is a low point for them. Their internationalism rings hollow, and they have forgotten the meaning of liberty and the importance of developing critical judgement.
We need a radical restatement of educational values, political solidarities and to reclaim a space – for young and old – for open, critical, challenging opinions.
On 12 November an Open Letter signed by 160 Oxford students, teachers, scholars, staff members, and alumni was sent to VC Louise Richardson
On 16 October 2020, Samuel Paty, a 47-year old middle-school teacher, was killed and beheaded in Conflans-Sainte-Honorine, France. He was murdered for teaching a class of 13 and 14 year-old pupils about freedom of speech and tolerance, using a pair of Charlie Hebdo cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The response to their original publication was the terrorist attack on 7 January 2015, in which 12 people were slaughtered. In order to cater to individual sensitivities, the teacher invited students of any creed or origin who might feel offended to take a break from his class.
Shortly after his lesson, Samuel Paty was threatened by some of the students’ parents. The Ministry of National Education did not intervene, despite being notified of the issue. Some of his own colleagues chose to participate in Samuel Paty’s defamation and divulged private information about him. And as the official investigation following Samuel Paty’s slaughter has shown, one of the parents posted a video condemning the teacher, and communicated with his murderer several times before the terrorist attack.
In the days that followed, individual scholars, research institutions, and French universities condemned Samuel Paty’s murder. In the UK, by contrast, the silence of universities and teachers’ unions has been deafening. There has been, to this day, no official response from the National Education Union, the National Union of Journalists, the University and College Union, Universities UK, or the Index of Censorship, whose task is to defend freedom of expression. The University of Oxford was no exception: no statement was issued, no support was offered to students who might have been traumatised by the event.
Since 2015 and the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, tensions in France have steadily increased. This year, a series of violent murders have profoundly shocked people around the world. Even among these acts, the murder of Samuel Paty stands as a particular warning to students, teachers, and scholars; it is a direct threat towards those of us who would carry out our mission to transmit knowledge and to uphold freedom of speech. The silence of the foreign universities in response is deeply troubling. We look up to our university as a place that stands up not only for its own members, defends their rights and welfare, but also supports the rights of the academic community altogether. Given its tradition of free inquiry and global reputation, the University of Oxford has a wider duty towards those learning, teaching, and researching, wherever they are.
We, current students and teachers, as well as alumni, are calling on the University of Oxford to make a public commitment to the defense of free speech, in Britain, France, and around the world. To condemn unequivocally those who would use force or intimidation to stifle research and education. To stand in solidarity with academics who face threats of genuine violence. And ultimately, to live up to the purpose of a university in doing so.
On 18 November The Free Speech Union issued this Statement on the Murder of Samuel Paty:
We state without apology our commitment to freedom of speech
The Free Speech Union stands for freedom of speech, of conscience and of intellectual enquiry, which we regard as the essential pillars of a free society. These are the foundational freedoms on which all the others depend. We believe that human beings cannot flourish outside a free society, which means they cannot flourish in the absence of free speech. Free speech is how knowledge is developed and shared, as well as our views about morality, religion and politics. Robust debate – appealing to reason, evidence and our shared values – is also the best way to resolve
disagreements about issues big and small without descending to violence or intimidation. And free speech is the most effective bulwark against abuses of power by politicians, with history demonstrating that its denial is both
the aim of tyrants, because it stops people criticising them, and an ominous precursor to the removal of other freedoms.
In light of the recent murder of Samuel Paty, we would like to express our solidarity with France and reaffirm ourcommitment to free speech. If Mr Paty’s murder has shocked too few young people here in Britain, this is because adults have failed to convey the importance of free speech to the younger generation. We need to persuade them that without freedom of speech we cannot think for ourselves, express our beliefs without fear of retribution, engage in meaningful discussion and debate and combat the hatred that poisons contemporary politics. Too many young people think free speech is a right that only benefits the powerful, when history teaches us that its main beneficiaries have been the disadvantaged.
We must put serious work into developing arguments for free speech that can convince young people of its fundamental importance. Freedom of speech is not just a universal right: it is the pre-eminent democratic virtue.
Each time it is attacked, and we fail to defend it, we diminish our emocracy and strengthen those who would destroy it.
It is vital that all schoolchildren and college students learn how to discuss sensitive political, religious and moral issues without being drawn into sectarian conflict. This includes teaching them how to respond when exposed to ideas that they fundamentally disagree with and even those they find offensive. They need to experience the thrill of free inquiry, of intellectual challenge, of seeing someone else’s point of view and of persuading others to see theirs.
At the Free Speech Union, we are determined to support all efforts to defend free speech and educate young people about its value. We must ensure Samuel Paty did not die in vain.
A tragic footnote
On Sunday, the 7 March 2021, the French newspaper Le Parisian disclosed that, like many truants, the 13-year-old girl tried to keep her father from discovering that she had been suspended for repeatedly not turning up for lessons. She told a lie. She said her history teacher, Paty, had told Muslim students to leave the classroom so he could show the rest “a photograph of the Prophet naked”. He died because a student lied.