Oxford Law professors don’t often make it into the news. The last month has been an exception to this, however, as John Finnis – an esteemed expert on jurisprudence – became the latest target of the student crusade against academic freedom and independent thinking. What was his crime, you may wonder? According to the petition by students at the university, which called for his immediate sacking, Finnis has written homophobic articles and maintains a history of “racism and xenophobia.” The petition asserts that these beliefs have made students uncomfortable with attending his classes, and have “forced” them to campaign against him rather than focusing on their education.
Perhaps Finnis’ views are unsubstantiated and unfair. But he has done nothing to deserve the attacks that are being piled upon him. The petition states that university is a place to focus on education. And what is education but discussion and debate about even the most controversial of topics? If students believe that Mr. Finnis’ views are hateful and that they threaten the very identity of LGBT students, then that is a matter to be discussed academically. Rather than resorting to a trial by public opinion, the students should make clear their own thoughts on the matters discussed in Finnis’ articles. There is no call for personal attacks in the world of academia, and such attacks threaten academic freedom itself.
Such a statement coming from a student union, the body which is bound to protect student freedom on campus, is especially ironic
This case is one of many which have flooded the academic landscape in the United Kingdom and the United States. Students believe that freedom of speech can be sacrificed in the name of protecting people from offense. Even at Warwick, students, and the SU itself have a history of such behavior. As recently as December 2018, the Warwick SU argued in a Facebook post that “some issues are simply not up for debate.” Such a statement coming from a student union, the body which is bound to protect student freedom on campus, is especially ironic. The very reason why freedom of speech is so strongly protected in our legal systems is to protect those who wish to discuss those topics which may controversy and perhaps even offense.
On another note, the stifling of controversial opinions will only propel us towards a rapid and slippery slope to total oppression on university campuses and eventually nationwide
On another note, the stifling of controversial opinions will only propel us towards a rapid and slippery slope to total oppression on university campuses and eventually nationwide. First views which go against the “politically correct” are prohibited. Next are views which attack such prohibitions on freedom of speech. Eventually speech will become curtailed and universities will become mockeries of what they once were: stifled and muted campuses where students, researchers, and staff alike avoid any discussion of issues likely to cause the slightest offense for fear of being shunned, expelled, or dismissed.
Freedom of speech cannot be limited or constrained. Nor can academic freedom. Banning controversial views will not make them disappear, nor will making an example of the holders of such views. It is of the essence that the views of John Finnis and others like him are both protected and debated against – not dismissed thanks to the angry calls of offended students.