SARs and Government Censorship

The full scale of the UK government’s censorship of academics and experts is yet to be uncovered.  

In August 2023 the UK government admitted the existence of fifteen departmental-level “due diligence” policies relating to academic and expert speakers. The policies specified that any academic or expert who had “criticise[d] government officials and policy” should not be allowed to speak at government events. Departments with these policies included the Home Office; the Ministry of Justice; the Department for Health & Social Care; the Department for Business & Trade; HM Revenue & Customs; the Department for Digital, Culture Media & Sport; the Department for Levelling Up, Housing & Communities; and the Department for Transport.  

The policies were used extensively to bar academics from speaking to government departments and from speaking at government organised conferences. This is a form of censorship. Known cases include:  

  • Dr Aaron Bradbury and Ruth Swailes  

Dr Bradbury is a lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, Ms Swailes is an expert in early childhood. Both were due to speak at a conference on childhood sponsored by the Department of Education in March 2023. Officials at the DfE pressured the organisers of the conference to the cancel the event, citing criticisms that Bradbury and Swailes had made of government policy. When Bradbury and Swailes threatened legal action, the government withdrew pressure, but sent a senior government official to “monitor” what Bradbury and Swailes said.  

  • Dr Kate Devlin  

Dr Devlin, a computer scientist at King’s College London, was due to speak to a group of civil servants about women in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths in October 2022. The government cancelled her talk at short notice, again citing the fact that she had criticised the government on social media.  

  • Professor Priyamvada Gopal  

Professor Priyamvada Gopal, a historian at the University of Cambridge, had been due to speak to officials at the Home Office on links between the department’s policies and British colonial history. Her invitation to speak was cancelled after Guido Fawkes, a right-wing politics blog, alerted the government to a tweet in which Gopal accused the then Home Secretary Priti Patel of racism.   

Under legal pressure, the government retracted all fifteen policies in August 2023. However, senior Conservative politicians remain unrepentant. Priti Patel has described the fact that Kenan Malik, a public philosopher who has criticised the government’s immigration policies, was permitted to give a talk to civil servants as “an extraordinary betrayal of the voters”. Further, as guidance for civil servants the policies were made in secret, and not voted for by MP’s. To date, only one of the fifteen policies has been published. Consequently, it is unknown how many academics have been excluded from government events solely on the basis of their political views.   

Academics can discover whether the government has collected information on their political views by filing a Subject Access Request (SAR), which compels a department to release all documents it holds that mention an individual’s name. A significant number of academics and experts in the field education have now filed SARs. Among those who have received results are Rachel Lofthouse, Professor of Teacher Education at Leeds Beckett University. The Department of Education had compiled a record of Lofthouse’s social media activity and emails which extended to more than 60 pages. In the case of Carmel O’Hagan, an expert in modern foreign languages, the government had compiled a 37 page dossier claiming, among other things, that O’Hagan had “a will to be destructive”.   

Academic freedom must exist in all places in which academics conduct their work. The primary place where academic work is done is the university, but it is not the only place. Academics also work in government: chairing committees, advising departments and ministers, speaking at conferences. The government’s policy of preventing academics whose political views it disagrees with from speaking at government events is a direct attack on academic freedom. The ability to conduct academic work must not be dependent on one’s political views. While we may be pleased that the government has been forced to withdraw these illiberal policies, it is extremely concerning that the extent of the government’s previous censorship remains unknown. The best way to discover the scale of government censorship is for academics to file Subject Access Requests. This can be done by a simple email. The Committee for Academic Freedom urges all academics whose work has any connection with government, no matter how tenuous, to file SARs now, and expose the extent of government censorship.