Leading article: The right to hold vile views (and to protest)

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The Independent Online

The row is now upon us and students and staff alike are in uproar. But should Dr Ellis's employers in Leeds University follow the script and sack him? This is a complex issue. Dr Ellis's views are undoubtedly repugnant. As well as being an advocate of the widely discredited Bell Curve theory, he supports the "humane" repatriation of immigrants. To Dr Ellis, the British National Party is "useful". Six years ago, at a conference of far-right groups in the United States, he likened the inquiry into the police handling of the Stephen Lawrence murder to one of Stalin's show trials. It takes no great leap of imagination to conclude that Dr Ellis is a racist and that he is dredging up the pseudo-science of the Bell Curve for malign purposes. It is deeply unpalatable that such a man should be in a position to teach students, some of whom will be from ethnic minorities. And it is distressing that Dr Ellis has found work on a multicultural campus such as Leeds.

Yet Dr Ellis has provided no grounds for Leeds University to terminate his employment. Legally, he has done nothing wrong. There is no evidence that he treats any of his pupils in a prejudicial manner. Lecturers are entitled to hold private views. And freedom of conscience is especially important in a university. It is one of the functions of academia to challenge received wisdom. Freedom of speech must be respected, even though it is quite clear that, in this instance, a man is deliberately testing the limits of the principle.

But that is not to say that nothing can be done. Leeds students are organising a boycott of his lectures and seminars. They have a perfect right to do so. The flip side of the right to free speech is the right of others to hold you to account for those views. Dr Ellis considers himself heroic for daring to articulate his views in what he regards as a climate of censorship. Will he feel so brave when he finds himself addressing empty lecture halls? Will the university then be keen to retain his services? Dr Ellis is not breaking any laws by articulating his views. But neither are those who are refusing to have anything to do with him.