6th Jun, 2020

University wins its freedom of speech battle with Brexit MP

Rob George 12th Oct, 2018

UNIVERSITY of Worcester chiefs have emerged victorious in their year-long fight against calls for details of e-mails to and from vice Chancellor Professor David Green with the word Brexit in them to be revealed.

The fight was sparked after a former Government whip and now Brexit minister Chris Heaton-Harris MP wrote to UK universities and asked for the names of professors teaching Brexit courses together with copies of the syllabus and links to the course.

In response, Professor Green refused to provide the information, arguing that Mr Heaton Harris’ approach was challenging to the concept of freedom of speech and academic freedom.

The controversy led to several further attempts to obtain the information under the Freedom of Information Act. One particular attempt requested the University to disclose emails to and from the Vice Chancellor with the word Brexit in them.

After reviewing all the arguments and the relevant law in a carefully reasoned 10 page judgement, Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham concluded disclosing his emails ‘would inhibit the free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation, and would be likely otherwise to prejudice the effective conduct of public affairs’.

In her judgement, the Commissioner stated: “If the university is required to put this information into the public domain, the Commissioner agrees those views would be likely to be much more cautious and risk averse in the future and those concerned would be inhibited from providing a free and frank exchange of views for the purposes of deliberation.”

“Furthermore, it is the Commissioner’s view staff and other third parties, such as Universities UK must have the confidence they can share views with one another and that there is an opportunity to understand and discuss, issues which may affect them.”

Professor Green said: “This was a further attempt to use the Freedom of Information Act (2000) in a way which would, in my view, have been deeply against the public interest and inhibited the free flow of ideas which is so valuable in informing decision making and creating a democratic and inclusive University.”

“The attempt by a member of Her Majesty’s Government to establish a comprehensive information base containing all University academics in the UK teaching on Brexit with their names, syllabi and course material, was a deeply dangerous scheme.

“It runs directly contrary to the entire history of free enquiry, teaching and research which is an essential ingredient of a modern democracy. Members of the Government have a particular responsibility and duty to protect academic freedom within the law not to circumscribe it.

“I trust that university leaders throughout the country will be more resolute than ever to stand up for academic freedom and to be confident that the law supports us in performing this vital duty.

“It is particularly important that we stand up to such requests from national political sources, regardless of party affiliation.”

Despite a request from the Observer, no comment was received from Mr Heaton-Harris.

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