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Speak out at your peril: Self-censorship and the smothering of academia

Unthinkable: Commercial interests and social-media outrage are curtailing free speech

Two years ago, students at Oxford University petitioned campus authorities to sack a Catholic professor because of his views on homosexuality.

Last year, a physicist at Michigan State University was forced out of his administrative role because he publicly defended the right to research whether or not there were differences in intelligence between races.

Just a few months ago the head of Huawei Ireland wrote to the Government seeking "full support in mitigating the damage" he claimed had been caused by a political scientist at University College Dublin who said the company had "murky ties" to China's communist rulers.

These are but a few dispatches from the ongoing battle over freedom of expression on campuses across Europe and the US. Academics blame a rise in both official 
censuring and self-censorship on the triple whammy of an increasingly commercialised higher-education sector, polarising culture wars and the unpredictability of social-media outrage.

The most recent edition of the Academic Freedom Index shows 80 per cent of the world's population lives in countries that restrict academic freedom, says Trinity College Dublin lecturer Dr Roja Fazaeli.

“This includes freedom to research and teach, freedom from surveillance on campus, autonomy for higher education institutions, freedom of academic exchange and freedom to share research, and freedom of cultural expression in academic contexts. So, yes there is a threat to academic freedom at present, and large drivers are state repression and conflict.”

There is extensive self-censorship that is harmful because it is hidden

Growing concern about researchers being punished for their views in the US recently led to the formation of the Academic Freedom Alliance. It is backed by dozens of leading scholars, including cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, and public intellectual Cornel West, who claims to have been denied tenure by Harvard because of his public criticism of Israel's treatment of Palestinians.

Of course, not all threats are on a par, and the kind of censorship that takes place in western universities may seem relatively minor compared with the persecution of dissident thinkers in other parts of the world. However, "there is extensive self-censorship that goes on in the West that is harmful because it is hidden," says Prof Rowena Pecchenino, an economist at Maynooth University and chair of Scholars at Risk (SAR) Ireland.

“This self-censorship can be part of a decision to get ahead in one’s job by not calling out wrongs. When one does call out wrongs one has to recognise that one may be marginalised in one’s organisation for having done so. But when one does not, those in power are able to silence their critics, which is never good in a free society.”

Speaking in a personal capacity, Pecchenino says: “Whether I agree with someone or not, fellow academic, politician or member of the public, I would generally defend their right to express their views, however controversial, in the right forum. However, no one has the right to incite actions that could physically harm others. This does not mean that speech cannot harm the official reputation of a politician, an academic or a member of the public.

“Part of taking a public position in whatever public square you choose, real or virtual, is the expectation that you will be criticised for what you say and for the decisions you take. Responding thoughtfully to that criticism is essential.”

Her comments go to the heart of the free speech debate. Typically there is a stand-off between, on the one hand, libertarians with an attitude of “let’s hear all the arguments and then judge”, and, on the other, social justice campaigners who argue that words themselves hurt, and that the expression of outmoded ideas does real damage. Is there any way of reconciling these two perspectives?

“Who determines what is an outmoded idea? This is the issue,” Pecchenino replies. “If one thinks it is outmoded and so should no longer be expressed and another thinks it is still current and of central importance, who is right?

“If we do not hear the arguments, debate the issue, converse with and try to convince or be convinced by or at least better understand the other, then do we truly believe what we say or are we hiding? Freedom of speech is not easy but it is essential.”

Asked whether the libertarian position can be reconciled with the view that unjust speech is in itself harmful, Fazaeli, who is associate professor in Islamic civilisations and a prominent activist on migrant rights, says: “It’s important to acknowledge that these are certainly not the only two perspectives in town, and one thing academic freedom helps us to avoid is unnecessary binary thinking.

Respectful teaching includes acknowledgment of past and present human pain

“I think that a wide hearing for different arguments is a classic academic position. In the development of the modern secular university, we see that academic practice has tended to privilege mode of exchange before content or conclusion; that mode is one which is respectful of difference, evidence-based, and acknowledges that no one person has a full handle on truth. Therefore, we must continually be open to acknowledging our own mistakes in scientific study, and also open to learning from others. At least that is the ideal.

“The reconciliation, therefore, if you want to use that term, is in the process of exchange, and it is ongoing. With that said, respectful teaching and learning takes context into account, and that importantly includes acknowledgment of past and present human pain, as well as the structural effects of historic and ongoing forms of exclusion.”

Both Pecchenino and Fazaeli will be speaking at an online conference next week on academic freedom and intellectual dissent, which will hear a keynote speech from the American social critic Noam Chomsky and an address by President Michael D Higgins. The event is being organised by Prof Maria Baghramian, a representative of Scholars at Risk at UCD, and will look at ways of strengthening academic freedom, as well as current challenges.

Funding

The question of funding is an important one, Fazaeli says. When academics are demoted or refused jobs because they highlight certain issues, it “can encourage additional suppression of academic freedoms and signal that there are doctrinal lines of inquiry that are to be crossed at a researcher’s own peril.

“The pressures of funding in academic research are significant, and the ability of these pressures to lead not only to institutional [censorship] but also to self-censorship is real. Even in universities that are not struggling with funding, these dynamics have the potential to redirect lines of original and important inquiry.

“I would certainly like to see more robust ethical screens and protections applied to funding models, in both private and governmental contexts.”

Funders often shy away from controversial subjects

Pecchenino agrees, saying the impact of commercial interests can be far-reaching. "Funders often shy away from controversial subjects, being more comfortable 
with research perceived as politically neutral, and, ideally, the basis for 
commercial gain.

“Curiosity-led blue sky research, in any discipline from the humanities to the physical sciences, which seeks to answer difficult and uncomfortable ‘why’ questions, can be difficult to fund. Not everyone is as persistent as [Hungarian biochemist] Katalin Kariko, a force behind mRNA research who struggled at the margins yet whose research turned out to be critical to the development of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines.”

Academic Freedom and Intellectual Dissent, an online conference with Noam Chomsky and Michael D Higgins, takes place on Tuesday, June 8th. For more details see https://allea.org/academic-freedom-event/