Against The Grain: 'I'd invite the BNP to a debate'

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The Independent Online

Dennis Hayes is a visiting professor at the Westminster Institute of Education at Oxford Brookes University. He argues that academics should have the freedom to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions with impunity, no matter how offensive they might be.

Every week there seems to be a new attack on academic freedom, and yet academics aren't defending it, because they don't see what's happening. Many institutions' statements on academic freedom have so many caveats that they cease to be about freedom at all, and the University and College Union has an entirely contradictory view of it: it supports the academic freedom of the left-wing academics it agrees with, while condemning the right-wing ones it disagrees with. But university should be a place where you can challenge every bit of perceived wisdom.

Freedom of speech is under attack throughout society, and the academy should be ensuring that every viewpoint can be heard and challenged, but it's not doing that. Everybody in academia should be able to say what they like, otherwise we're not universities any more, we're just training institutions to school people in the "right" views.

I'm not arguing that academics should go around being gratuitously abusive or insulting people's grandmothers, but freedom of speech is shut down when people are afraid to say anything that might be seen as offensive. Last year, Staffordshire University decided that there would be no political debate during freshers' week, arguing that the new students should be being welcomed rather than being forced to engage in a heated debate. When I went to university, we took it as normal that every lesson you went to would turn your views upside down: now, nobody's views are ever challenged.

Academics should stop self-censoring and be brave enough to accept the right to hold extreme views. It's their responsibility to say whatever they think is true, but they shirk this by blaming anybody but themselves for restricting the freedom to speak: the education system, the government, even the law. And if they're not prepared to challenge their students' views, then the students are getting a raw deal out of university, and so are they: people will start thinking of university as a place to be intellectually safe.

People ask me if I would let the BNP in on a debate, and I say, "Of course I would." It's not because I'm a racist or I like the BNP, it's because you have to respect people's ability to make up their own minds about an issue.

Racist ideas are not stunningly intellectual, and the majority of 18-year-olds would be able to challenge them successfully without any trouble whatsoever. But if you are to defeat these arguments, you at least have to hear them.

Dennis Hayes is the founder of Academics for Academic Freedom, which university lecturers and researchers can sign up to at www.afaf.org.uk.

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