Academic freedom under threat?

Two recent Oxbridge stories caught my eye. First, Daithí has a characteristically perceptive and wide-ranging post on a demand by students in Oxford for the dismissal of Prof David Coleman because of his (unpopular) connections with Migration Watch. The whole point of academic freedom (DHI | Human Rights Watch | wikipedia) is the right to think unpopular thoughts. They can be wrong, or wrongheaded – many, if not most, ideas fall into this category. But the fundamental cornerstone of academic enquiry is that they can be thought. Once articulated, they can be met, and their wrongness or wrongheadedness demonstrated. Student Action for Refugees (STAR) would do better to counter Migration Watch in debate and argument, and thus to persuade those still open to persuasion, than shrilly to seek Prof Coleman’s dismissal and in the process potentially turn off the persuadeble middle ground.

Second, in Cambridge, the boot is on the other foot. Legal Scribbles reports (following on from an earlier post) that students have been questioned under caution by the police on suspicion of having committed an offence contrary to s5 of the Public Order Act 1986, for having published cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. This is every bit as much an attack on academic freedom as the STAR demands to sack Prof Coleman. And the answer is the same. The students have the same rights to freedom of expression as their professors, and vice versa. Most ideas fail to prosper. But we cannot know until they have been articulated whether they convince.

If Prof Coleman’s personal political views on immigration are unfounded, STAR will over time demonstrate that this is so. And if it is offensive to Muslims to print images of the Prophet, their arguments over time will convince us not to do so. The academic freedom that the students in Oxford would deny Prof Coleman is the very bromide which the students in Cambridge would seek to assert. In the long run, it is not the unbridled power of the mob, or the police power of the State, but simply the power of persuasion that is best security for all of us not only in the academy but in society more generally.

Update (11 March 2007): Nick Cohen has an excellent article about the Cambridge controversy in today’s Observer.