Comment & Analysis
May 4, 2017

Academics and the Freedom to Express Controversial Opinions

Dr David Landy argues, in light of Trinity's upcoming conference on academic freedom, that it is universities' duty to discuss and shed light on controversial topics.

David LandyOp-ed Contributor
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Sinéad Baker for The University Times

The story of Steven Salaita is a valuable one for anyone who cares about freedom of speech in academia. Salaita was a successful, popular professor of English. He applied for and succeeded in getting a tenure track position in the University of Illinois. Delighted, he quit his old job, only be told at the last minute that the university wouldn’t give him the job they promised. The reason: he tweeted scathing criticisms of the murderous 2014 Israeli attack on Gaza, an attack that left hundreds of children dead. Donors had threatened to cut their donations if the university hired someone so critical of Israel, and the university caved – effectively firing Salaita before he managed to teach a single class. Salaita successfully sued them for unfair dismissal, but despite his exemplary teaching record, no US university has since offered him a job. He has been effectively blacklisted because of his opinions.

Salaita will be coming to Trinity this September to speak at a conference on academic freedom, because his story is a prime example of how such freedom is threatened. It brings in issues of academic precarity, of online witch hunting, of groups outside academia making threats and of the power of wealthy donors in a neoliberal era. This all erodes academic freedom, and in the US has created a climate of fear against expressing controversial opinions, particularly with regard to Israel.

The question of the academic boycott serves as a lightning rod, a prime site on which challenges to academic freedom occur

When people talk of freedom of speech in universities, usually they think of the controversies surrounding “no platforming” – how some students refuse to accept that those they disagree with should be given an academic platform to speak from. While this is a problem, it pales into insignificance beside the much larger threat to freedom of speech that comes from outside forces using a combination of bureaucratic measures, online mobbing and semi-legal threats to restrain freedom of speech on campus.

An example of this was in the recent conference in University College Cork (UCC) on “International Law and the State of Israel”. Given that Israel has broken more UN resolutions than any other country, it was perhaps inevitable that many speakers would be heavily critical of Israel. The conference was originally scheduled for the University of Southampton, but that university had given in to threats made by supporters of Israel. Citing security concerns – an unfortunately all-too-typical bureaucratic move deployed to stifle free expression of controversial views – they cancelled the conference. UCC faced a similar lobbying campaign against the conference, involving intense vilification of participants and organisers who were repeatedly called antisemites and Jew-haters for their participation. However despite this circus, UCC to its immense credit, ensured that the conference went ahead, setting an important precedent for academic freedom in Ireland.

Controversies over Israel has often been where academic freedom has been tested. This is why the academic freedom conference in Trinity focuses on the specific issue of the academic boycott of Israel. This is because the question of the academic boycott serves as a lightning rod, a prime site on which challenges to academic freedom occur.

We can also be proud that Trinity is staunchly committed to maintaining academic freedom in all its aspects and has been supportive of this conference

Since the academic boycott is a controversial topic, one would expect those who support the boycott to be challenged. However, the challenge rarely comes from within the world of ideas and is usually offered through a mixture of ‘lawfare’, bureaucratic strictures, threat to employment and disciplinary measures. At the same time, there is a legitimate question as to whether academics should be political actors or whether this takes academic freedom too far. Obviously, the conference will not take any position on the boycott itself – while undoubtedly some participants will support and others oppose the boycott, the aim is not to promote either pro or anti-boycott positions. Rather the conference uses the academic boycott controversy as a prism through which to examine questions of academic freedom.

As Mike Jennings, the General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), recently wrote, ”We in Ireland can be proud of the fact we are one of the few countries that has enshrined the right to academic freedom in our laws (the Universities Act 1997)”. We can also be proud that Trinity is staunchly committed to maintaining academic freedom in all its aspects and has been supportive of this conference. After all, it is the duty of universities to discuss and shed light on controversial topics.


Dr David Landy is Assistant Professor in Trinity’s Department of Sociology, course director for the MPhil in Race and organiser for September’s conference on “Freedom of Speech and Higher Education: the Case of the Academic Boycott of Israel” in Trinity.

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