When Resat Baris Ünlü sat down to write an exam question for his students, he didn’t suspect that the consequences would include death threats on his life.
Ünlü, a modern historian who teaches at Ankara University, asked his students a question on the 1978 Kurdistan manifesto written by Abdullah Öcalan.
But when a Turkish newspaper found out about the content of the exam question it was suggested that academics were supporting “terrorist activities” and hiding behind “the cloak of freedom of expression”.
Since the newspaper article, Ünlü has received multiple threats on his life.
This is just one incident from many around the world that we have charted in a special report about to be published in Index on Censorship magazine, that show the variety of threats to the principle that academic life is about presenting, debating and reviewing different attitudes and evidence from a multitude of sources without fear of harm.
Another case that sends out chills was the report from academic Tatyana Malyarenko in Ukraine about how the fighting in her country has led to massive divisions between those working at universities. Special committees have been set up at universities in Ukraine to uncover “separatist” attitudes among those teaching on campuses. Reports, like those made to witch trials centuries ago, are being filed by students and other faculty to these attestation committees. Those named are being calling before committees for investigation, where lecturers can end up being denounced and losing their posts. When words like “patriotism” are flung around as weapons, then leaders of nations are drawing on the bluntest, and most pathetic, of instruments to keep their citizens in check.
Faint echoes of McCarthyism cannot be ignored when you hear of the details of these accusations and those called before such committees. Those infamous trials in the US during the 1950s have dark memories for a nation where first amendment rights are often touted as fundamental to their values, and where people self-censored their views.
But today the US is certainly not immune to placing limits on what academics and students can argue. Shockingly, certain US campuses have created small free speech zones, painted areas, often in remote parts of the universities, where people are allowed to speak about “controversial” subjects. Just there. Nowhere else. What does that say about attitudes to learning and questioning? Most people outside the US are absolutely astounded to find out about these free speech zones. “Really? They can’t possibly exist, can they?” Yes, they can, and do. These zones are small, but significant, symbols of the limitations that are appearing in each part of the globe, ranging from the ridiculous to the downright frightening.
Painting a white line around a square and saying “here is where you can do your free thinking” does nothing but undermine the idea of academic excellence being about an inquiring mind and an ability to challenge preconceptions.
Meanwhile in the UK, academic freedom is also being challenged. Over the past couple of years, Index and others have also challenged “safe space” policies adopted by many UK universities. These policies have been used to ban speakers or debates that groups of students disapprove of.
Students are freed from the cotton wool when they head off to university; they are out of the clutches of mum and dad, and get to make their own choices. Quite rightly. But they are also, many for the first time, hearing people speaking about policies, politics and ideas they might have never heard before, and with which they might vehemently disagree with. But there’s nothing wrong with that. If you are sure that your position is right, then you lose nothing by hearing the counter arguments. It might help you work out how to win over the opposing side, or, it just might, convince you to change your point. Sure, there should be a chance to argue back. Yes, panels should carry a range of positions. But when powers that be, and even students themselves, want to wrap up their world so they can’t hear opinions they don’t like or agree with, then they are doing themselves no favours.
Trigger warnings, where students are told that passages in textbooks might cause offence and no-platforming policies are being used to close off avenues of discovery and inquiry. Putting together this report has shown that the threats to academic thought are different in different regions. But all around the world, the freedom to think, study, teach and discuss is coming under threat from a variety of forces.
That’s why it was no surprise that around 70 academics and authors have signed an open letter of concern that is printed in the upcoming magazine.
The freedom to think, discuss and disagree should be central to every institution of education, and, sadly, that idea seems under debate.
Rachael Jolley is editor of the quarterly Index on Censorship magazine, which will publish its summer edition in mid-June. Index on Censorship’s debate on academic freedom is on 1 July. It is called “Silenced on Campus”. Details here.