Queen Mary University and Queen Mary UCU both wrong about academic freedom.

Queen Mary University has removed “pro-Palestine” posters from Queen Mary branch of the University and College Union. At the same time, the union has called on the university to take an official position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Both actions constitute attacks on academic freedom.  

Queen Mary UCU is the branch of the University and College Union, the largest union for academics in the UK, at Queen Mary University. It had installed two posters, pictured below, in its offices: 

The union reports that on Monday 19 Feb, University management contacted the union, requesting access to their office, in order that university security could remove the posters. The union agreed to arrange access, but stated that the posters should not be removed. While access was being arranged, university security broke into the office, causing lasting damage, and removed the posters. 

The slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is generally understood to be a call for the disestablishment of the state of Israel. Many will find the slogan highly offensive or repugnant. This is not, however, sufficient ground for censorship. Academic freedom requires that academics can form and join groups which express political views – and this includes unions. Queen Mary’s censorship of Queen Mary UCU is an attack on academic freedom.  

Unions are inherently political organisations – established, in part, to campaign for political causes. They are fully entitled to take “official” political views. By contrast, a university is not a political institution: its purposes are research and teaching. When a university takes an official view, it removes this view from the realm of politics and establishes it as dogma. A culture of dogma has two complimentary sides – a momentum to sustain the fiction that everyone believes the dogma, and where this fiction is exposed, an illiberal demand that everyone must believe the dogma. The more the fiction is exposed, the greater the demand grows. The pressure to sustain the fiction that all believe, and the persecution those who do not, is part of the “chilling effect” arising when a university takes an official view.  

Thus, Queen Mary UCU are wrong to call on the university to express support for a ceasefire. Universities cannot avoid taking action that is of political consequence. They must decide, for example, whether or not to divest assets. But universities must not take official views – especially on highly important political issues. It is absurd that Queen Mary UCU has called on the university to take an official view while protesting restrictions to its own freedom of speech. The academic freedom of Queen Mary UCU has been compromised by the university, but its own commitment to academic freedom appears at best confused, and at worst cynical.  

Queen Mary UCU must be allowed to put up its posters in its office. Queen Mary University must not yield to the union’s demands that it take an official view.