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A Win for Free Speech, A Challenge for Free Thought

A Win for Free Speech,
A Challenge for Free Thought

As the Bristol Employment Tribunal rules that  anti-Zionism is a philosophical belief, John Marenbon explains the implications of its judgement.

On Monday, the Bristol Employment Tribunal upheld the claim by David Miller, a professor of Political Sociology, that the University of Bristol had unfairly and wrongfully dismissed him. Miller, a vociferous and extreme anti-Zionist, is considered by many to be an antisemite, and these views, as articulated to students and in public, prompted his dismissal. The case has many complexities, but the outcome hinged on the tribunal’s decision that Miller’s anti-Zionism is a ‘philosophical belief’ and so qualifies as a protected characteristic according to the Equalities Act 2010. The verdict provides a litmus test for attitudes towards freedom of speech in general, and a chance to think about the particular problem of freedom of speech and thought in the universities.

The case differs from that of other academics forced to leave their job due to their beliefs, because Miller’s views are abhorrent to most of the public. He believes that ‘Political Zionism’ – the establishment and maintenance of Israel, a Jewish state in what was formerly Palestine – is ‘inherently racist, imperialistic and colonial.’ He claims it is ‘ideologically bound to lead to the practices of apartheid, ethnic cleansing, and genocide in pursuit of territorial control and expansion.’ Although he maintains that his opposition is to Zionism, not Jews, Miller insists that there are tight connections between Zionism and every sort of Jewish organization. ‘Jewish students on British campuses’, he has said, are ‘being used as political pawns by a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing.’ He has also declared that Jews ‘are overrepresented in Europe, North America and Latin America in positions of cultural, economic and political power.’

There is a sinister ring to this last statement, which looks back to the age-old Jewish Conspiracy Theory. If Jews are ‘overrepresented’, does that mean that a Jewish quota should be introduced and with it discrimination against Jews (of which Miller, implausibly, denies the existence)? None the less, Miller does not incite anyone to action against Jews, and his emotive terms of censure are applied to Zionism and Israel, not to Jews. Though the UK has, perhaps, too low a threshold for finding controversial statements offensive and condemning them as ‘hate speech’, none of Miller’s pronouncements has been found illegal. However unpleasant they may find his views, defenders of free speech should uphold Miller’s freedom to express them – and that means the freedom to express them without being dismissed from his job as a result.

But Miller’s job was as a university teacher. Does that not make a difference? Some would contend that Miller’s statements fall within the ordinary area of free speech, but not within academic free speech. The criteria for the latter are in some respects looser than for the former (with regard to challenging and shocking ideas), but in some respects stronger (in respect of coherence and avoidance of conspiracy theorizing).[1] This is a useful distinction, and it draws attention to a striking feature of the Employment Tribunal’s nuanced, hundred-page judgement: it considers that academics are just straightforward employees.

But academics are more than that. They also uphold and transmit the academic and intellectual ideals for which universities stand. They are servants, ultimately, of truth. This position gives them great freedoms, but lays on them even greater responsibilities. From the information made available, Miller seems to have taken advantage of the freedoms but not to have heeded the responsibilities. In his life outside academic teaching and research, he was indeed free to campaign for his ‘philosophical belief’ about Zionism, which he clearly holds firmly and sincerely, but in his academic work he was bound to acknowledge that he might be wrong.

Sincerity is not enough for the pursuit of truth. Beliefs that we hold deeply and strongly are often wrong, and it is the academic’s duty to present a full range of intellectual possibilities (among which Miller’s demonization of the Jewish State should be, at most, one).

This should be the rule for students as much as their teachers. As participants in the academic life, students have liberties and responsibilities, which include keeping an openness to what is intellectually strange, repugnant and even offensive, and abjuring any mental safe space from what might challenge their deepest assumptions. They should be glad to have their preconceptions upset and be willing to counter their teachers with argument. Jewish students should not, then, have been eager to denounce Miller as ‘an utterly vile antisemite’, nor should Islamic students at Bristol have denounced a different professor for Islamophobia – a charge from which he was completely exonerated, but not before it had caused immense damage to his life and reputation.

Universities, for their part, should be slow to take up complaints of these sorts. They ought to tell students that being shocked or even angered by others’ views is an important part of intellectual life. But the universities are also responsible for choosing academic staff, and they have a duty to ensure they employ genuine academics, not pundits intent indoctrinating their students in a view. The tribunal’s decision is not just as a litmus test for freedom of speech. It is also a wakeup call to the universities for freedom of thought.


[1] See https://doi.org/10.1093/clp/cuac001 for an argument by Anthony Julius on these lines.


Professor John Marenbon FBA

Professor John Marenbon is a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge and the British Academy. His recent publications include Medieval Philosophy: an historical and philosophical introduction and Pagans and Philosophers. The Problem of Paganism from Augustine to Leibniz.  Politeia publications include Intangible Assets: Funding Research in the Arts and Humanities, co-published with New Direction.

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