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Academic Freedom and the Law: 20th May 2-4pm

EAFAF is delighted to launch the publicity for our next open event, “Academic Freedom and the Law”, on May 20th. Our speaker, Akua Reindorf KC, and our discussant, Joanna Cherry KC MP, will help us understand the law as it currently stands in relation to academic freedom, and there will be plenty of time for audience discussion of what academic freedom is, what it could and should be, and how the law may help us to defend it. As with all EAFAF events we warmly welcome everyone who wants to come and enter into good-faith discussion, whatever their views on the topic.


This event has been weeks in the planning. Organising an event which foreseeably will be targeted by censorious individuals and groups is a cumbersome, time-consuming business: risk assessments need to be undertaken, permissions and requirements must be negotiated with university managers, and meetings with security colleagues have to take place. We had hoped to release details of this event much earlier, but we only obtained the final sign-off at the very end of last week.


This means we are releasing our publicity, and our booking link, hard on the heels of the sabotage of our second attempt to show and discuss the documentary Adult Human Female on our campus. Some may draw the conclusion that we have hastily arranged our forthcoming event as a response to that sabotage. Much as we may wish it were possible to organise an event in under a week, that is not what has happened.


Nonetheless, the sabotage of our screening and discussion last week highlights how much we need to discuss the safeguarding of academic freedom, and necessarily provides some framing to this next event. Without wanting to pre-empt the discussion on May 20th, it is important to note that academic freedom and freedom of expression are distinct, though related, entities. A statement recently issued by University of Edinburgh management defined academic freedom as meaning that, “academics have the ability to express their opinions, question established ideas and develop new ones, and present controversial or unpopular points of view, without placing their employment at risk”. A censorious climate, in which academics are at risk of being targeted for pursuing unpopular or unfashionable lines of enquiry in their research, teaching and/or public engagement, is antithetical to academic freedom and may make its exercise difficult, unpleasant and in some instances, impossible. That a lawful screening and discussion of women’s rights could be prevented not once but twice in our University is an outward, visible signal that we have a problem with academic freedom.


What happened at both our attempted screenings – in December and again in April – was an exercise of what is widely known in the USA as the ‘heckler’s veto’. The deep division on our campus is not necessarily over substantive issues, in this instance sex and gender. Rather, it is between those who wish to discuss difficult social issues calmly and respectfully, and those who insist that some social issues and their implications should be considered out of bounds for discussion; between those who seek to use the established scholarly conventions of good-faith, evidence-based argument and counter-argument to arrive at understanding (if not agreement), and those who reserve for themselves the right to determine what ideas other people may engage with. This is a feature of campus life that needs to be explored and understood.


In academic life, reputations matter. An academic’s reputation – carefully built up and curated through (e.g.) securing research grants, publishing in high-status outlets, and receiving positive student ‘satisfaction’ reviews – is key to establishing and maintaining their career. In this context, the chilling effect of social censure is profound and long-lasting. For academics in the early stages of their careers, often precariously employed, the risks are particularly intense: social censure carries the very real threat of contracts quietly not being renewed, and fresh contracts becoming impossible to obtain. In preventing our event from happening, a tiny number of censorious individuals were able to unlawfully infringe on others’ rights to freedom of expression and freedom of assembly. But arguably a much more powerful harm was done to the onlookers. To our colleagues and students, the clear message was, “Don’t criticise ideas that we have said must be treated as unassailable”. It is already close to impossible to organise public engagement events that platform criticism of gender-identity theory at our University: our event, had it gone ahead, would have been the third in four years. By contrast, there have already been at least three events platforming gender-identity theory uncritically on campus in the last four months. However, a more lasting damage may well be that academic colleagues, mindful of the need to safeguard their reputations, are even more likely either to follow the approved lines on sex and gender in their teaching and research, or to decide to teach and research something different altogether.


The Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill currently before the Westminster parliament, can be seen as one attempt to use the law to safeguard academic freedom. It is not universally popular amongst those academics who believe that academic freedom is in difficulty: some have argued that the measures in the Bill are needed to prevent further deterioration of the climate for academic freedom, whilst others have variously argued that the Bill seeks to address a non-existent or wrongly-defined problem, or that its introduction of new regulations will be complex and counter-productive. On the face of it, it does seem a bit odd to seek to address a culture of fear – if that is what exists – through additional regulation. Where there appears to be a greater degree of consensus, at least amongst many of those actively involved in academic freedom discussions, is that if only University managers had set their own house in order, no-one would be even considering more legislation.


Here in Scotland, there is no new legislation on the horizon. University managers still have that opportunity to set their own house in order. Will they take it? We hope that our event will provide an opportunity to consider what the law currently does and does not do, and what it might enable us to do as we seek to defend academic freedom as a core principle of university life and education.


More prosaically, should our event be targeted, our Principal, Professor Sir Peter Mathieson, will have the opportunity to demonstrate that his professed commitment to “building a more mature, listening community” is more than simply words. We have not yet received a response from him to our urgent request for a meeting, sent nearly a week ago at the time of writing: we think it is important that we meet with management to hear from them, first-hand, what they will do in the immediate context to protect academic freedom and freedom of expression on campus.


UPDATE 04/05/2023: In response to our email, sent last week, requesting an urgent meeting, management have now replied to offer us a meeting date in mid-May.

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