Beware this government’s attack on academic freedom
18 February, 2021
• YOUR newspaper needs to be congratulated for its principled defence of free speech.
Your readers will be pleased to hear that the Academic Board at University College London has urged the College Council to retract the adoption of the IHRA, International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, “definition” of anti-Semitism, which risks conflating legitimate criticism of the state of Israel with anti-Semitism, thus threatening freedom of expression on campus.
“By blurring these boundaries”, it states, “the IHRA working definition risks undermining academic freedom.”
Education secretary Gavin Williamson has threatened to withhold funding from universities that do not adopt the definition.
The report by the UCL Academic Board says Williamson’s intervention demonstrates “how university autonomy is under threat.”
It concludes by stating that “if universities are not permitted to use evidence, scholarship, research and logic to rebut ministers’ political demands, then our autonomy and independence are seriously in peril.”
Kenneth Stern, the lead drafter of the IHRA definition, wrote recently that he continues to believe that “the definition has appropriate applications for data collection, for giving guidance on hate crimes and for diplomatic purposes.” Yet he objects to its use as a speech code on campus.
He is concerned about the abuse of the definition to silence political speech in universities. The point of the campus debate over contentious issues, he wrote, is to make sure that students aren’t harassed, intimidated, or discriminated against.
It’s not to shield them from ideas, including disturbing ones. Readers are referred to his 2020 book The Conflict over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate.
David Feldman, director of the Pears Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London, wrote in The Guardian on December 2 that Williamson’s request to universities to adopt the definition “threatens to provoke strife and confusion and places academic freedom and free speech on campus at risk.”
Paradoxically the same government of which Williamson is a part recently announced its intention to appoint a “free-speech champion” for English universities. We suggest that said champion start their tenure by challenging Williamson himself.
Predictably Oxford University has come under pressure from some Jewish students for hosting an event at St Peter’s college with film-maker Ken Loach, a former Camden resident; the complaining students referred to the IHRA definition in their attempt at
Oxford University had recently adopted the definition. The threat to freedom of speech is present and real.
Camden is the home of many students and academics; many of them are readers of your lovely paper. We urge them to support the UCL Academic Board in its fight for freedom of speech.
SABBY SAGALL, HELENA AKSENTIJEVIC, LUCA SALICE, GEOFF LEE, JANET GREEN, VICTORIA BRITTAIN, PAUL O’BRIEN, ROGER HIGGINSON, STEPHEN KAPOS, SUE CAMPBELL, OWEN HOLLAND
Camden Palestine Solidarity Campaign