Writing in the Guardian today, Cambridge don Priyamvada Gopal lambasts the UCU for dropping its debates on an academic boycott of Israel.
There are a number of inaccuracies and objectionable statements in the article.
First, and most importantly, the article claims the Union is suppressing the planned debates on the boycott and therefore curtailing free speech. This is wrong on two counts. First, it is wrong as a simple matter of fact: the debates testing members' views on the implementation of an illegal boycott have been cancelled as no longer appropriate, while leaving union branches free to debate the issue at their leisure. The debates were scheduled in a rather rushed way, with hefty amounts of the union's budget devoted towards them, and would only have been able to be attended by a small percentage of membership (on a quota basis), so the fact they are happening is hardly a loss. The fact that the speakers had been invited to put forward positions on a boycott that has been clearly shown to be illegal means that there is no way the debates could have proceeded in their planned form anyway. (For the actual union position, see its statement here.) It is rather irresponsible of the Guardian to publish such an inaccuracy.
The claim is also wrong in the sense that cancelling specific debates cannot be interpreted as shutting down debate in general. Branches remain free to discuss the issue; no doubt the UCU activists e-mail list is buzzing with discussion on it.
Second, the article locates the decision in the context of a broader "assualt" on academic freedom. "Even as freedom of speech is invoked as the great western value to be spread across the globe, by force if necessary, its limits are marked by two unbreachable taboos: anti-Americanism, and criticism of the Israeli state and its occupation of Palestine." The absurdity of this claim is evident from the simple fact (mentioned later in the article) of one of America's most prestigious academic institutions actually extending an invitation to speak to Mahmoud Ahmenijad, possibly the person in the world second most well-known for anti-Americanism and criticism of the Israeli state (the most well-known being Osama bin-Laden). If such views are off-limits, how did his invitation go out?
Dr Priyamvada Gopal uses the emotive word "ban". She says Minnesota's University of St. Thomas "banned" Desmond Tutu. The definition of "banning" is not allowing someone in. In fact, if Tutu turned up at the university, I am sure he would be welcomed. What happened was that an invitation was not extended to him.
This is part of a wider misinterpretation of the issue of free speech at large in the culture today. If I believe in someone's right to free speech, that does not mean I have to let him come in to my house and do it there - and certainly doesn't mean I am obliged to extend an invitation to him to do it there, not to mention put up the costs. Banning someone's views from being expressed would, for instance, be forcing their publisher not to publish their books, or putting them in prison for their views; not inviting someone is not the same as banning. Not holding a series of resource-intensive regional adversarial debates is not the same as banning discussion of an issue.
Finally, Gopal makes small change out of the Walt-Mearsheimer controversy, claiming that they came under fire "simply for attempting to open discussion on US-Israel relations" (when clearly they have done a lot more than "open discussion"), which has nothing to do with threats to academic freedom or free speech (I don't believe anyone has tried to ban Walt and Meersheimer), and only serves to raise the (effectively if not necessarily intentionally anti-semitic) spectre of an "Israel lobby" (or, as Tutu puts it, "Jewish lobby") pulling the strings behind the UCU decision.
Added: a little more from Martin.
Plus: Contentious Centrist on Desmond Tutu