Right of Reply: Academic freedom is not academic license

No academic is above the law. An academic who – shall we say – incites violence can expect both criminal and institutional penalties.

BDS Israel (photo credit: Courtesy)
BDS Israel
(photo credit: Courtesy)
In The Jerusalem Post of April, 17 my colleague Professor David Newman, Dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Ben-Gurion University, sought – in a personal capacity – to exploit the celebration of the Pessah festival in order to draw attention to what he claimed are dark forces seeking to trample on academic freedom – and more generally upon freedom of expression – in the State of Israel.
At his own university he claimed that “right-wing activists,” unhappy with the political views of some faculty members, had been conducting “concerted and well-planned attacks” with a view, ultimately, to curtailing the academic freedom of certain BGU faculty, and even of having them dismissed.
“Were it not [Professor Newman declared] for the employment laws of the state relating to tenure, there is a growing feeling among the faculty that some could have been dismissed for expressing their views.”
On March 28 last, it was my great privilege to deliver a public lecture at BGU on “Intellectual Freedom and Academic Obligation.”
In a manner of speaking, I had in fact invited myself. Last year I contacted Dr. Neve Gordon, who teaches in Professor Newman’s faculty, and offered to debate him, at BGU, on issues related to the BDS campaign (of which Dr. Gordon appears to be a leading exponent) and academic freedom. To my great sorrow, Dr. Gordon declined my invitation, claiming he was “not interested.”
That rebuff notwithstanding, I contacted the president of BGU, Dr. Rivka Carmi, and it was through her good offices that my lecture was arranged.
Unfortunately, the pressure of official business meant that Professor Newman was not able to hear in person the remarks I made to that packed seminar room in March. Had he been present he would have heard me draw a sharp distinction between academic freedom and academic license. Devotees of academic license (I am not one of them) believe that an academic should be free to say more or less anything on more or less any subject. The concept seems to me to be deeply flawed.
TO BEGIN with, no academic is above the law. An academic who – shall we say – incites violence can expect both criminal and institutional penalties – criminal because of the law of the land and institutional because an academic who incites violence brings her or his institution into disrepute. Even for those with tenure, the charge of bringing the employing institution into disrepute can customarily result in dismissal. And quite apart from this, there is the issue of defamation. Can an academic legitimately claim that he should be able to – say – libel or slander a colleague without hindrance? Of course not! So academic freedom is not academic license.
In 1988, the British Parliament defined academic freedom as the freedom for academics “to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs.”
To those of us who took part in the discussions that resulted in this statutory formulation, the wording was not ideal, but I think most agreed that the formulation could only be applied to a peacetime situation.
In peacetime, an academic should indeed be free to criticize, castigate, chastise and/or condemn not just the government of the country in which he lives and works, but the country itself. This freedom cannot be claimed when the country is at war and its very survival is at issue.
In my March 28 lecture I deliberately spent some time considering freedom in general and academic freedom in particular with reference to the United Kingdom during the Second World War. I explained that between 1939 and 1945, habeas corpus had been suspended – people were imprisoned without trial ( including one sitting member of Parliament).
Civil liberties were heavily circumscribed.
The “Home Guard” – a sort of militarized police force – could and did shoot people dead on sight.
There was comprehensive censorship of the media.
And academics most certainly could not say what they liked, if for no other reason than that the law of the land prescribed draconian penalties (including hanging) for offenses deemed by the courts to fall within the definition of treason. This definition included consorting with the enemy, inciting, aiding and abetting the enemy, and engaging in any act likely to give comfort to the enemy.
ISRAEL IS at war. Muslim states, both Arab and non- Arab, have made it crystal clear that they wish to destroy the Jewish state. Even as I flew out to Israel from London, dozens of rockets were slamming into Israel from Gaza – to say nothing of the Jerusalem bus station bombing. In this deplorable situation I would have thought it the duty of every Israeli academic – no matter his/her party-political outlook – to think very seriously about whether anything they say or do is likely to give comfort to the many enemies of Israel.
I must also point out that the BDS movement is itself at odds with the very concept of academic freedom, since it seeks to make the espousal of a particular set of political principles the price for entry into that academic dialogue which is at the very heart of what we mean by a university.
“Agree with my views” – it says – “or I will boycott you and freeze you out of the academy.”
In this sense I believe that the movement is essentially totalitarian, and indeed fascist in nature. It has no place – none at all – in a true university environment.
Argue by all means. But boycott and betray at your peril.
The writer is Michael Gross Professor of Politics & Contemporary History and Sub-Dean of the School of Humanities at the University of Buckingham (United Kingdom) and Patron of the UK Council on Academic Freedom.