The University of Bristol, Free Speech and Professor David Miller.

I have been struggling for some time with the conflict between my strong personal conviction in favour of free speech, particularly in Universities, and my concern over the fact that one of the professors at my old University in Bristol, David Miller, has said and written some deeply problematic things.

That's "problematic" as in "resigned from the Labour party before Sir Keir Starmer could throw him out" while under investigation for alleged Anti-Semitism after Sir Keir started to make a serious attempt to do something about that problem.

I am very proud of the fact that I successfully persuaded Cumbria County Council to adopt the IHRA definition of Anti-Semitism in a non-partisan manner, bending over backwards to avoid using the motion to score party-political points and thereby ensuring that the motion was passed nem. con. While researching that speech I learned about the work of the Community Security Trust in protecting Jewish places of worship and Jewish people generally from Anti-Semitic hate incidents. 

CST actually exists to protect Jewish people against racist attacks, and is recognised by the UK government and the police as a model of good practice, so I was incandescent with fury when David Miller smeared CST as "an organisation that exists to run point for a hostile foreign government" (e.g. Israel) and part of a "witch hunt."

My first draft of this post on FB had a Freudian slip there, I wrote "a witch hunt against anti-semites" when he actually accused CST of being part of a witch-hunt, full stop.  And then of blurring the distinction between Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism. Actually I think it is the Anti-Semites who had already done that. Not all Anti-Zionists are racist or Anti-Semitic. But just about every modern Anti-Semite describes himself or herself as an Anti-Zionist.

I have up to now believed that Bristol University cannot and should not take action against David Miller for views he expresses as an individual at events organised by groups like "Labour against the Witch Hunt," no matter how disgraceful I may find his comments. About the only thing Noam Chomsky ever said that I agree with is that if we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all." 

I stand by all the comments I have made over forty years in favour of free speech at the University, both as a student and at University Court meetings, where I once proposed a free speech motion. Even for someone like David Miller, provided he stays within the law and lives up to his academic responsibilities.

The question is whether he did fail in his academic responsibilities when he publicly criticised two individual Jewish students at the University - the chairs respectively of Bristol J-Soc and UJS - describing them as formally part of the Zionist movement and of acting as pawns for “a violent, racist foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing”. As he has also said that Zionism is "the enemy" and "has no place in any society" accused people he identifies as Zionists as agents of a hostile foreign state and added that he wants "to end Zionism as a functioning ideology," being described as a Zionist in this way and by such a person is a pretty chilling insult.

I am coming to the conclusion that when a university professor makes a public attack like that on two students at the university where he teaches, one of whom is 19 years old and the other presumably a similar age, we are no longer just talking about a free speech issue. There is at least a case to answer that we are talking about a misconduct issue, not because of David Miller's opinions but because he has failed to act in accordance with a duty of care towards students at the institution where he teaches.

The last thing we need is for this to become a party political issue, which it is threatening to do. But there has to be a way for those of us who strongly believe in free speech to ensure that the fundamental right to express unpopular opinions does not mean the ability to intimidate or vilify your students.


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