- Professor Greer was subjected to a groundless complaint and a very aggressive social media campaign accusing him of Islamophobia and racism, with a demand that a module he taught on “Islam, China and the Far East” be cancelled.
- The University completely exonerated Professor Greer and cleared him of any wrong-doing, but it nonetheless cancelled the module.
- Many of those who organised or took part in the complaint and/or the social media campaign, were in breach of Bristol’s free speech statement, and committed misconduct under its rules.
- Bristol has a legal duty to take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for its students and staff. It took no visible active steps to protect his freedom of speech.
AFFS has written to the University of Bristol about its free speech and governance failures in its treatment of Professor Steven Greer, former Professor of Human Rights at the University’s Law School.
The failings were so extensive that Professor Greer has written a whole book about this episode: Falsely Accused of Islamophobia: My Struggle Against Academic Cancellation. It makes compelling reading. If you know anyone who thinks there is no free speech problem at our universities, give them a copy. (It can be bought directly from the publisher, Academica Press, or from Amazon.)
In November 2020, the University of Bristol Islamic Society (“BRISOC”) lodged a formal complaint against Professor Greer for Islamophobia and racism. Given that he was subsequently completely exonerated by a University inquiry, it appears that the complaint was based on false allegations.
In February 2021, BRISOC launched an intimidating and very damaging social media campaign against Professor Greer, which continued the claims of Islamophobia and racism and included a petition to have him sacked and to have the ‘Islam, China and the Far East’ module he taught cancelled.
The module was cancelled in September 2021, expressly in order to avoid further complaints and citing “student well-being”, even though most students, Muslims included, had been happy with it and Professor Greer had been cleared of any wrongdoing.
Many of those who organised or took part in the complaint (given that it was found to be untrue) and/or the social media campaign, were in breach of Bristol’s free speech statement, and committed misconduct under its rules.
English universities must take reasonably practicable steps to secure freedom of speech within the law for its members, students and employees. This is a demanding requirement.
It is extraordinary that Bristol did not actively enforce its own free speech statement or rules. As well as general principles of good governance requiring this, it was legally obliged to do so.
How universities deal with controversies, especially social media storms, will be the sometimes very public face of how well they are securing free speech in practice. The great majority of Bristol’s failures stem from its apparent total failure to appreciate that it was required to do more than make nice noises about free speech, but to take active and firm steps to protect an academic like Professor Greer when under attack for his viewpoints. In this case, it had to stop extreme breaches of its own rules, many of them so bad as likely to be criminal.
Bristol’s failings were catastrophic for Professor Greer. If the University had complied with its obligations, and enforced its own free speech statement and rules, the outcome for him could have been very different.
Professor Greer asked the University to stop the social media campaign because of the risks it posed to his physical safety. He was told by Bristol to refer his concerns to the University’s police officer. His requests to the University to stop BRISOC’s campaign were simply ignored.
Given the seriousness of Bristol’s free speech failures, it needs to take urgent steps to get its free speech compliance right. There is a lot to do. An essential first step will be to appoint an external expert to review this episode and make recommendations for changes to its requirements to ensure its proper compliance in the future. We have listed some other key actions in our letter.
Our letter can be found here.
AFFS will be reporting these failures to the Office for Students.
We urge alumni and other donors to consider withholding funds from the University until it has demonstrated both resolve to improve its free speech protections, and real progress in doing so. (And telling the University that they have done this.)
Professor Greer says: “I am delighted that AFFS are helping me pursue the horrendous failures by Bristol to do their duty and to protect me from these unfounded attacks. I am very impressed by AFFS, and think they are going to make a real difference to the fight for free speech at our universities. I urge alumni who care about free speech to join them, and lend your shoulder to their campaign – they need you.”
What you can do:
- Share this page with your Bristol friends.
- Suggest they join AFFS – https://affs.uk/join: it is quick and free, the more members we have, the more pressure we can apply to our universities.
- We urge Bristol alumni to write to the VC and other officers about this (please remember to express yourself moderately, and keep to the facts). Their emails are set out below.
Relevant emails (from public sources):
Professor Evelyn Welch Vice Chancellor & President: email@example.com
Professor Judith Squires Deputy Vice Chancellor & Provost: firstname.lastname@example.org
Lucinda Parr Registrar & University Secretary: email@example.com
Professor Agnes Nairn Pro Vice-Chancellor for Global Engagement:firstname.lastname@example.org
Andrew Monk Executive Director of Development & Alumni Relations: email@example.com
Cath Bees Senior Philanthropy Manager: Cathryn.Bees@bristol.ac.uk
Jane Bridgwater General Counsel and Deputy University Secretary: Jane.Bridgwater@bristol.ac.uk
Clare Smith Associate Director of Legal Services: Clare.Smith@bristol.ac.uk
Laura Trescothick-Martin Associate Director of Legal Services: Laura.Trescothick-Martin@bristol.ac.uk