Professors contest Oxford harassment rules in free speech row

Policies ‘frustrating academic freedom’ by supressing lawful free speech, dons argue

June 10, 2022
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A group of academics at the University of Oxford is attempting to get the institution’s social media guidelines and harassment policies changed because they fear the documents are “frustrating” academic freedom.

Michael Biggs, professor of sociology, and Roger Teichmann, tutor and fellow in philosophy, proposed the move in a question tabled to the university’s sovereign body, Congregation. It has also been signed by seven other colleagues, including Jeff McMahan, White’s professor of moral philosophy and Nigel Biggar, professor of pastoral theology.

It follows the case of Abhijit Sarkar, who said he was subjected to rape and murder threats online after being accused of “Hinduphobia” due to his criticism of Rashmi Samant when she became the first female Indian student to be elected as president of the Oxford University Students’ Union.

Dr Sarkar, a specialist in far-right Hindu nationalism in India, linked Ms Samant and her family to the ideology on Instagram. His post was reported to the police, who investigated but took no further action.

Ms Samant – who resigned her position within days of being elected – said that she was targeted for being a Hindu and the allegations led to her being bullied. She made a complaint against Dr Sarkar, accusing him of harassment, which was upheld by the university.

But the academics behind the move to change the university’s policies feel more should have been done to defend Dr Sarkar’s academic freedom from the threats he was receiving online.

Their question – published in the university’s journal of record, the Gazette – says the university’s policies “prohibit speech that is lawful”, “frustrate academic freedom” and “harm academic careers”.

They claim the policies must be amended because they are currently “unlawful” and do not comply with the university’s legal obligations to secure academic freedom and freedom of speech.

In its response the university says that it had sought legal advice and is confident the documents comply with the law. 

But the group points to a passage in the social media guidelines which states that all staff are expected to “treat each other with respect, professionalism, courtesy and consideration”, pointing out that speech that does not conform to these parameters can still be lawful.

“The requirement that academic staff so conduct themselves is reasonable but legally baseless – speech that lacks respect, professionalism, etc, is still free speech within the law,” the statement says.

The scholars emphasise that as an institution founded on ideas of tolerance, free thought and free expression, Oxford’s policies should be “more liberal and open-minded” than that of the social media platforms themselves.

They also say that a part of the guidelines that states members of staff should “obtain written permission from the university before commencing online public campaigns” should be removed.

Elements of the university’s harassment policy also go further than the accepted legal definition of harassment and should be amended, the group allege. The Equality Act states conduct constitutes harassment if it is “related to a relevant protected characteristic” but Oxford’s policy omits this and therefore authorises “suppression of speech which is not unlawful under that act”, they claim.

These “failures” to defend academics’ legal right to freedom of speech and academic freedom put the university at risk of legal action and pose a “grave risk to the university’s reputation”, the academics warn, adding that this may only increase when the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Bill becomes law.

Oxford said that it had a “clear” commitment to freedom of speech – which it described as the “lifeblood” of the university – but in formulating its statutes, policies and procedures, it must also “take into account other factors, such as its duties to staff and students, other obligations under the [Human Rights Act], its public sector equality duties, and the risk of vicarious liability for the acts of its staff”.

It said that the university’s policies reflected these sometimes “conflicting obligations” but added that requiring standards of behaviour can also “protect freedom of speech” by ensuring “free, open and robust discussion”.

“In summary, the university is both allowed and obliged to take action in response to concerns about the treatment of a member of the university community by a fellow member of the same community and the university is confident that its policy and procedure on harassment and its social media guidance reflect and comply with its legal obligations,” it said in a statement.

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Reader's comments (1)

This is not true - Rashmi or her family had nothing to do with Hindu nationalism prior to this. Sarkar was harassing her and made false claims, that is not freedom of speech but is harassment and defamation of a student by a staff member. He also has a track record of many wrong doings, including harassing women and his tweets are disgusting and immature: