Belfast Telegraph

Free speech row as QUB academics accuse unionists of bid to gag them

TUV leader Jim Allister
TUV leader Jim Allister
DUP’s Nelson McCausland
Adrian Rutherford

A row has broken out following complaints by unionist politicians about views expressed by lecturers at Queen's University.

The University College Union (UCU) at Queen's has hit out at what it termed "wholly unfair and worryingly authoritarian attacks" on local academics' right to voice opinions.

It follows repeated criticism of some staff at the university, notably by the DUP and TUV, in recent months.

The union has now called on Queen's to "robustly and unequivocally reject demands by politicians to censure or silence academic staff".

But TUV leader Jim Allister dismissed the comments as "laughable".

There have been a series of clashes between unionists and Queen's in recent months.

Earlier this year a DUP councillor wrote to the university's vice-chancellor after a Queen's professor, John D Brewer, tweeted that "hell is too good" for Brexiteers.

And last year Mr Allister expressed "strong disquiet" after Brian Walker, an emeritus professor, questioned what he called the over-representation of certain political views on BBC Radio Ulster, including its use of Mr Allister.

The Queen's UCU branch also referred to remarks by former DUP minister Nelson McCausland in this newspaper.

Queen's UCU said unionist complaints were "part of a concerning pattern".

They added: "It's becoming depressingly and predictably familiar: an academic has their say on issues of public interest or political importance - as academics do worldwide - and a local politician petitions the university to have them disciplined or gagged.

"It's an outrageous attack on democracy and the values of free speech that our society holds dear."

The union said calls for universities to discipline employees for expressing differing opinions were "a serious misunderstanding of the role of academia".

It added: "In a democratic society and for the public interest, it is vital that scholars retain the freedom to explore the world they live in, challenge views and engage in intellectual debates, without fear of repression, censorship, or policing to fit the ideology of any political party or private interest." It cited the 1988 Education Reform Act, which gives academics in the UK the legal right "to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or the privileges they may have".

But Mr Allister said the union's claims were without foundation.

He said: "The comments by the University College Union at Queen's are frankly laughable.

"They complain about an alleged attack on freedom of speech because of a letter which I wrote to Queen's following an appearance by Professor Brian Walker. Ironically, he had complained about me being allowed to express my freedom of speech and sought to have me silenced."

He added: "Of course academics have freedom of speech. But freedom of speech means that those who disagree with academics have the right to express their views as well."

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