Defend Academic Freedom

Two weeks ago the University of Bristol took the shameful decision to fire Professor David Miller; anyone who cares about the principle of academic freedom should oppose this crackdown on open discussion. Miller has produced important research on Israel lobby groups in the UK, and it is therefore unsurprising that supporters of Israel have engaged in a sustained campaign to have him sacked.

Bristol admits that a QC instructed to examine the issues at stake found that Miller’s comments did not constitute unlawful speech; Miller maintains that the QC’s report went further and exonerated him of antisemitism. But even setting these considerations aside, it is obscure what ‘standards of behaviour’ Miller failed to uphold and why they would justify his firing. The mere expression of unpopular opinions cannot possibly suffice to have a professor dismissed, particularly given that the raison d’etre of academia is (or should be) finding truth. Support for academic freedom and Miller’s sacking are simply irreconcilable—the university cannot have it both ways.

More broadly there is a campaign to excise speech critical of Israel from university campuses. The IHRA working definition of antisemitism, which conflates legitimate criticism of Israel with antisemitism and thus threatens free expression, is being used to suppress Palestine activism.

A recent example of this strategy comes from the pro-Israel Pinsker Centre, which found in a report that statements made by student organisations in support of Palestinian human rights—as Israel was expelling Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah and bombing Gaza—‘could be construed as antisemitic according to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) Definition of Antisemitism’. The report noted that ‘despite the highly problematic nature of the various statements issued, no disciplinary procedures relating to antisemitism have been announced by any of the universities where the IHRA definition of antisemitism has been adopted.’ The report therefore demanded ‘a stronger and consistent disciplinary framework for the imposition of this definition’.1 In other words, Israel’s supporters want the IHRA definition to be mobilised to repress pro-Palestinian speech, including by the use of university disciplinary procedures.

Neither students nor academics should be subject to disciplinary action because of their political opinions. Academic freedom is a principle we must defend.

1 Pinsker Centre, Reactions at UK Universities to the Israel-Gaza Conflict (24 May 2021), p. 2, 21, 23.

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