Don't mention the P word

Paedophilia is the new demon, but the betrayal of academic freedom is a greater disgrace, writes Glen Newey
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The Independent Online
Paedophilia has replaced witchcraft and communism in popular demonology. Last week Edinburgh University's principal, Sir Stewart Sutherland, sacked a university psychology lecturer, Chris Brand, after a disciplinary tribunal judged that an e-mail article by Brand on paedophilia was "disgraceful".

The university says it "went out of its way" to defend Brand last year, when the National Union of Students demanded his dismissal for having written a book, The g-Factor, a study of race and intelligence, which was also withdrawn by the publishers Wiley in the US. Now it transpires that the underlying principle was: two strikes and you're out. Brand's offence was to defend, via an e-mail message, the Nobel laureate Daniel Gajdusek, who claimed - pause for sharp intake of breath - that sexual activity by adolescent Polynesians might not be harmful in all cases.

It's hard not to conclude that Edinburgh found Brand an embarrassment and wanted to be rid of him. The official judgment - or rather the press release put out in its stead, as the judgment itself remains secret - talks about "undermining trust", which seems to mean that Edinburgh decided to back Brand over The g-Factor, as long as he kept quiet thereafter.

According to the press release, the tribunal's procedures conformed to 1988 legislation designed to "protect academic freedom" and its report "is a long and thoroughly argued document" - claims which would be more persuasive if the report had been made public. It adds that Brand's dismissal "in no sense... inhibits the entirely proper exercise of academic freedom".

Arguments about academic standards might carry more weight if this were not the institution which accepted an endowment from Arthur Koestler to establish a professorial chair in "parapsychology". But, of course, there's lolly about and defending paedophiles, one suspects, is bad publicity, is fewer applicants, is less cash.

This is not to say that Brand is someone you'd want to marry your daughter. His Web site dispenses some would-be epatant stuff about clerics pressing florins into choirboys' sticky little palms, and lampoons the principal as "Dame" Stewart Sutherland. All very puerile, no doubt, and not a little galling for the top biscuit. But snook-cocking is not an indictable offence.

The media's paedophilia obsession - a characteristic mix of prurience and moralism - must rank among the great hypocrisies of our time. Recently a schoolteacher was driven to suicide after being charged with an offence (possessing child pornography) which, on any plausible view, ranks in the roll call of human villainy some way below wife battering, drunken driving or supplying torture equipment to foreign dictators.

The proposition which Brand endorsed was that paedophilia had been proven not always to be harmful to 14-year-olds. That is a controversial claim, which may well be false: Brand would have been on safer ground claiming that paedophilia had not been proven always to be harmful to them. Still, there clearly must be grounds for arguing that sex between 14-year-olds is not the same as an adult having sex with a three-year-old.

The arguments surrounding the debate on whether the age of consent for homosexual males should be lowered to 16 have shown that there must inevitably be something arbitrary about the thresholds which the law has to impose. In such matters, notoriously, the law has to make judgment about not just an individual's development, but also the rate of development between individuals. The result leaves the law open to accusations of failing to protect victims of adult sexual predation, on the one side, and of "heterosexist" double standards on the other.

Perhaps these issues are as simple as simple-minded tabloid headlines claim - though I doubt it. Even if they are, we still need to know why the opposite view should be stifled, and why anyone should lose their livelihood for expressing it. The real disgrace is not Brand's remarks, but Edinburgh's betrayal of academic freedom. As the great Noam Chomsky has pointed out, nobody wants to ban things they don't dislike. Whether someone favours censorship depends on whether they favour banning things of which they disapprove.

The writer is a lecturer in Philosophy at Sussex University.