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 A  MILLER'S TALE

On Friday 1st October the University of Bristol issued a statement[1] in relation to Dr David Miller, who until that date (and from 2018) had been Professor of Sociology at that University. The statement told us that Professor Miller was no longer employed by the University, and it explained, in very general terms, why:

 

We have a duty of care to all students and the wider University community, in addition to a need to apply our own codes of conduct consistently and with integrity. Balancing those important considerations, and after careful deliberation, a disciplinary hearing found Professor Miller did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff and the University has concluded that Professor Miller’s employment should be terminated with immediate effect.

 

The background - or at least some background – to this decision to dismiss Professor Miller is I think well known. As I noted in the Jewish News last March[2], for some considerable time various Anglo-Jewish organizations had been complaining ever more menacingly about statements that Professor Miller was reported to have made concerning Zionism, Jewish students in general and, in particular, the Jewish Society and Jewish students at Bristol University:

 

I find [I said] some of the statements attributed to Professor Miller – and the authorship of which he has not denied – to be utterly despicable. I refer, for example, to the statement that appeared online on 18 February 2021, in which he accused Jewish students of being “directed by the State of Israel” to engage in a “campaign of censorship” that endangers Muslim and Arab students as well as non-Zionist Jewish students.[3]

 

In relation to this 18 February utterance I did not mince my words: “Not only is this statement outrageous [I wrote]. It strikes me as lacking any serious evidential base, and to amount to pure malevolent polemic.”

 

But I added that, in my view, the right to give offence and to be offensive was integral to the larger right of freedom of expression:

 

Freedom of expression, even in an academic setting, is not and can never be absolute. Nonetheless I personally draw its boundaries very wide. Within those boundaries academics are entitled to think outrageously and to express outrageous thoughts. The way to address such controversial and even contemptible expressions of opinion is not to confront them through the politics of the megaphone, but to use that precious freedom of expression to demonstrate how wrongheaded and frankly loathsome they really are.

 

Clearly the University of Bristol did not agree with my view. The University’s announcement strongly suggests that Professor Miller was not dismissed because the University felt that in relation to any of the statements complained of he had broken the law. Indeed, the announcement that Professor Miller had been dismissed includes a reference to “an independent report from a leading Queen’s Counsel who considered the important issue of academic freedom of expression and found that Professor Miller’s comments did not constitute unlawful speech.”

 

So if the comments complained of did not breach the law of the land, why, nonetheless, was Professor Miller dismissed? Because [to quote again from the University’s announcement], it felt it had “a duty of care to all students and the wider University community, in addition to a need to apply [its] own codes of conduct consistently and with integrity.”

 

I find this explanation unsatisfactory. I accept that – for example – an academic should not bring her/his employing institution into disrepute. But “disrepute” is open to many interpretations. In any case, the conduct which led to Professor Miller’s dismissal was not – apparently – that he allegedly brought the University of Bristol into disrepute, but that that sundry of his public utterances upset Jewish students – more especially Jewish students at Bristol University.

 

In the wake of his dismissal, and as one might expect, a miscellany of Anglo-Jewish pressure groups jostled with each other in welcoming this outcome.[4] Of particular interest is the statement published by the Campaign against Antisemitism, which statement suggested that its own threatened legal action against the University might have had something to do with the University’s decision a few weeks later to part company with Professor Miller. “Our legal case against the University [the CAA declared] concerned alleged unlawful harassment on the basis of Jewish ethnicity and Judaism, amounting to breaches of the Equality Act 2010, as well as breaches of contract. We launched pre-action proceedings in late August and the University swiftly realised that it was putting itself in legal jeopardy by sustaining Prof. Miller’s employment at the institution.”

 

Professor Miller has the right of internal appeal and he could of course also take his case to an Employment Tribunal. In either or both of these forums he might well decide to argue that he acted lawfully at all times and that his dismissal amounted to little more than an attempt by his then employing institution to appease a mésalliance of Jewish and Zionist groups.

 

This argument would – I’m forced to declare - have more than a grain of truth about it. Indeed, by affecting to appease these groups, the University has in fact given ammunition to those who argue that Professor Miller is a victim of some kind of Jewish and/or Zionist machination.  But, lest these triumphant groups get carried away with their victory over Professor Miller and his former employer, I feel duty bound to issue a warning:  if at some future date a philosemitic, pro-Zionist academic is forced out of their employment at the behest of a mésalliance of Muslim anti-Zionist lobbies, please don’t say I didn’t warn you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments

Unknown said…

From Jonathan Hoffman

1. Ludicrous drawing of moral equivalence between Miller and Zionists

2. The same conditions apply to Freedom of Speech for academics as for the rest of us. You ain't special. See Article 10 of ECHR:

"The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary."
Academics are, like everyone else, subject to the law of the land. But they have explicit additional protections:

See Higher Education & Research Act 2017, Part 1, clause 2, section 8, sub-section c:

In this Part, “the institutional autonomy of English higher education providers” means—

(a)the freedom of English higher education providers within the law to conduct their day to day management in an effective and competent way,

(b)the freedom of English higher education providers—

(i)to determine the content of particular courses and the manner in which they are taught, supervised and assessed,

(ii)to determine the criteria for the selection, appointment and dismissal of academic staff and apply those criteria in particular cases, and

(iii)to determine the criteria for the admission of students and apply those criteria in particular cases, and

(c)the freedom within the law of academic staff at English higher education providers—

(i)to question and test received wisdom, and

(ii)to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions,

without placing themselves in jeopardy of losing their jobs or privileges they may have at the providers.

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