Prof Colin Harvey spoke publicly last week about the fact that he has been the subject of complaints to Queen’s University by unionist politicians for articulating such ‘radical’ views as support for a United Ireland and that Brexit will have a damaging impact on human rights here in the north of Ireland.
Unfortunately, this will come as little surprise to many of us; other academics have been subject to similar treatment for expressing views and opinions that some of these politicians find challenging; never mind the fact that such opinions are based on evidence, data and analysis.
That it is the job of academics to form hypotheses, conduct research and analyse the data and evidence to prove or disprove such, seems to escape those who complain because they don’t like the outcome.
Furthermore, academic freedom is supposed to protect academics, researchers, teachers, students, and academic institutions to pursue knowledge wherever it may lead, without undue or unreasonable interference. Individuals must not face intervention from institutions or government in the pursuit of or communication of knowledge. This seems to be an alien concept to some unionist politicians.
Academic freedom includes the freedom to engage in activities involved in the production of knowledge, the freedom to inquire and explore, the freedom to teach and communicate ideas. It allows for academics to speak or write in public, and to be free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline.
It is not the role of either the academic or the institution that employs him/her to ensure ‘balance’ of counter opinion in the pursuit of neutrality. The ability to inform and debate, to express opinions which challenge accepted beliefs and perceived fact is fundamental.
Attempts to silence or censor, from whatever quarter, need to be robustly challenged; academic freedom, freedom of speech and expression, must be defended as principles underpinning a democratic society.
Institutions have a role, a duty and a responsibility, in defending the principle of academic freedom.
It would be a very positive signal if our universities issued a statement of support for this principle, making it clear that it is not their role to neutralise academic opinion and that no amount of political pressure will change this.