On 1 October, David Miller was fired by the University of Bristol for his controversial statements about Israel. The reason for terminating his employment, the university said, was that ‘Professor Miller did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff.’ The behaviour in question consisted of words: contentious words with which many would disagree, but words nonetheless, words not directed against any specific individual and not conforming to any conventional definition of harassment, though respected colleagues have argued otherwise.
‘A change in the name of the US War Department to “Defense Department” in 1947,’ Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman wrote in After the Cataclysm, ‘signalled that henceforth the state would be shifting from defence to aggressive war.’ I was reminded of this a few days ago, when the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, proposed the appointment of a ‘free speech and academic freedom champion’ for universities, tasked with investigating breaches and issuing fines. The move comes despite a 2018 parliamentary committee report that ‘did not find the wholesale censorship of debate in universities which media coverage has suggested’, and a review of ten thousand student union events which found that only six had been cancelled (four missed deadlines for paperwork, one was a scam, and the other was a Jeremy Corbyn rally arranged without sufficient notice). Williamson is not reacting to a problem; he is reifying the illusion of one. The government is reaching for the fig leaf of a ‘free speech champion’ after a year of escalating authoritarianism in education and culture.
A group of Oxford students are petitioning to have John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and legal philosophy, 'removed from his academic position' on account of his 'discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people'. In his published writings, Finnis has claimed that gay sex is an 'immoral sexual act' akin to bestiality, that being gay should count ‘at least as a negative factor, if not a disqualification’ for adopting children, and that governments should 'discourage' citizens from homosexuality. The petition has its problems.