Fascism, Free Speech and Academic Freedom: A Case Study from the 1980s

This paper raises some important issues concerning academic freedom in contemporary higher education institutions in the UK and elsewhere. It focuses particularly on the question of whether the rights of one individual should supersede those of the wider academic community of students and staff. Based on extensive archival research, the paper examines an episode that caused a major crisis within the Polytechnic of North London (PNL) in the 1980s. This had far wider relevance at the time and has considerable current resonance.

The case concerned a student at the institution, who was an influential figure in the National Front, a far-right and racist political party. Student pickets prevented his entry to PNL, leading to an escalating crisis, with the police soon involved, and students and academic staff brought before the High Court. The affair became a cause célèbre with the majority of the press hostile to the students’ action, and the Polytechnic soon faced a serious threat of closure. All this raises several issues of continuing significance. In particular, should the rights of one individual supersede those of the wider academic community, including black and ethnic minority students and staff, to learn and teach in a secure environment?

The paper argues that a possible solution to the difficulties at PNL was not achieved, largely because of insufficient institutional autonomy and the actions and inactions of both the courts and the institutional management. In this situation, the National Front was able to use the liberal value of free speech to portray the student in question as the victim of intolerance. The ensuing situation of chaos was resolved only when the Inner London Education Authority and new institutional leadership acknowledged the importance of establishing an anti-racist culture and took some significant steps to address the concerns behind the protests.

The paper concludes by drawing out the current relevance of the case study. Under recent legislation, students, staff and others will now be able to lodge a complaint with the new Office for Students if they feel penalised by a university or student union for exercising their right to free speech. Will this guarantee academic freedom in today’s diverse community or could those who threaten the liberal university manipulate the doctrine of free speech to advance their own agendas? The experience of PNL in the 1980s offers a salutary warning.