Of academic freedom and inconvenient truths


A senior staff of the University of Mauritius, Rajen Narsinghen of the Faculty of Law has been convened to appear before a disciplinary committee set up regarding views he has expressed publicly about certain issues that are currently of great concern to the country and are in the public domain. Among others, it is the provisions of the Covid-19 Act that have been the target of his comments.

We are not aware of what, if any, specific charge, has been made against him. Whatever that be, what draws our attention are both freedom of speech and academic freedom. In this respect, we may allude to some material from Wikipedia relating to two countries which are held up as examples of mature democracies, the US and UK.

One view is that ‘academic freedom is a moral and legal concept expressing the conviction that the freedom of inquiry by faculty members is essential to the mission of the academy as well as the principles of academia, and that scholars should have freedom to teach or communicate ideas or facts (including those that are inconvenient to external political groups or to authorities) without being targeted for repression, job loss, or imprisonment’, adding that ‘while the core of academic freedom covers scholars acting in an academic capacity – as teachers or researchers expressing strictly scholarly viewpoints -, an expansive interpretation extends these occupational safeguards to scholars’ speech on matters outside their professional expertise. It is a type of freedom of speech’. (italics added)

Another view is that ‘academic freedom is a contested issue and, therefore, has limitations in practice’. Reference is made to the ‘widely recognized “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” of the American Association of University Professors, whereby ‘teachers should be careful to avoid controversial matters that are unrelated to the subject discussed. When they speak or write in public, they are free to express their opinions without fear from institutional censorship or discipline, but they should show restraint and clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution’. (italics added)

As for Academics For Academic Freedom (UK), it follows two main principles: 1) that academics, both inside and outside the classroom, have unrestricted liberty to question and test received wisdom and to put forward controversial and unpopular opinions, whether or not these are deemed offensive, and 2) that academic institutions have no right to curb the exercise of this freedom by members of their staff, or to use it as grounds for disciplinary action or dismissal. They also ‘believe that it is important for academics to be able not only to express their opinions, but also to put them to scrutiny and to open further debate’.

It is generally accepted that where there is freedom of expression societies prosper economically, and people are more open to ideas and opinions that differ from their own, and even more importantly, are willing to accept that these may be put to scrutiny and further debate. Which implies that if these ideas find their way into legislation, other than analyzing them, it is quite possible that in the public interest they may also need to be contested by means of due legal process. Provided that this is adhered to, one presumes that this should not pose any problem to the national authorities.

In the present case, the provisions of the Covid-19 Act have already been the subject of much public discussion by several stakeholders, which include political observers and analysts, opposition politicians, trade unionists and NGOs. What they have been particularly vocal about are the amendments that have been brought to allow making freer use of the reserves of the central bank by the State, amendments to labour laws that facilitate redundancy and the fate of Mauritians who are stranded abroad. Preventing them from returning to their country, which is their constitutional right, has been deemed to be a serious and unacceptable breach of that right. Further, international human rights organizations are likely to be alerted about these developments.

Surely one of the points that will cause a major casse-tête and require elucidation, for future guidance as well, will be ‘scholars’ speech on matters outside their professional expertise’ for, in this case, the academic concerned is a professional in the same subject matter, that is the legal field. Where to draw the fine line is the conundrum here, one that will not be easy to resolve.

 As to the other point, that scholars should ‘clearly indicate that they are not speaking for their institution’, probably this will be less problematic – but here again there may be nuances that may be brought up to support the case for disciplinary procedure.

It is a fact that there are past and current instances of UOM staff giving their opinions on political matters, as well as their political positioning being known. But what perhaps demarcates the present case is the fact that it is a piece of legislation that has already been passed, on the motivated grounds of a dire public health emergency (which Article 12 provides for), that is being publicly challenged.

The outcome of this case will hopefully bring much needed clarification of this subject of academic freedom, but either way, inconvenient truths cannot be wished or whisked away. They somehow surface to prick our collective conscience – and so much the better for our democracy.

* Published in print edition on 23 June 2020

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