Overhaul of law to protect freedom of speech at universities

Jarosław Gowin, Poland’s Science and Higher Education Minister, felt that the broader freedom that the existing higher education reform - known as the “constitution for Polish science” - bestowed upon academia was being used every now and then to limit the internal freedom of universities. That is one of the issues that the draft overhaul seeks to address.

The revamp of the “constitution” presented on Thursday may affect the whole system of higher education and science. One of the overhaul’s provision reads that “no one may suffer negative consequences of legal” use of freedom of speech.

“In the past few months, a phenomenon that hinges on ideological censorship has been intensifying at universities,” said Mr Gowin.

The authors of the draft overhaul would also see university chancellors obliged to protect the freedom of speech. Moreover, the draft envisages the establishment of a Commission for the Freedom of Speech within the System of Higher Education and Science. The commission would consist of four delegates of the Higher Education and Science Ministry, three representatives of the Main Council of Science and Higher Education, one student and one postgraduate.

According to the draft’s provisions, a lecturer, a researcher, a student and a postgraduate student, whose freedom of speech was threatened or violated, may contact the commission with a motion for a recommendation. The commission would scrutinise the matter and produce a recommendation to which the university would have to respond. The commission’s first 5-year-long tenure would start on October 1, 2020.

The draft also specifies that the foundation of the system of higher education and science is the freedom of speech in addition to the freedom of teaching, art, research and publication freedom, and also the autonomy of universities.

“We are convinced that the current form and ethos of Polish academia, and the Polish university traditions should be a sufficient guarantee of freedom of research and lecture. Yet, since this seems not to be the case, and since we are dealing with growing ideological aggression [within universities], we have decided to introduce solutions that empower academia freedom expressis verbis,” said Mr Gowin.

‘Places where opinions collide’

“When one gags free speech, the truth falls by the wayside. That’s when the university becomes obsolete. That’s when dictatorship finds a gap to slip in,” said Mr Gowin, adding that “it’s indifferent to my mind who feels muffled by these limitations of freedom [of speech], whether these are people interested in Marxist philosophy and its supporters or those who, just like professor Budzyńska, follow convictions that stem from the moral teachings of the Church.”

Mr Gowin referred to professor Ewa Budzyńska of the University of Silesia who, when lecturing on family, demonstrated viewpoints rooted in the traditional model of the family, which resulted in her being held disciplinarily liable.

According to Mr Gowin, “universities ought to be an agora, where different opinions, different perspectives and methodologies collide as long as the scientific quality of the stated standpoints held during lectures or being part of the research is maintained.

“These provisions guarantee the establishment of a circle of wise people to assess whether a given view may fall within the permissible spectrum of academic debate or not,” said Mr Gowin, stressing that “should someone wish to proclaim views that glaringly contradict the findings of science then I do not expect the commission to question the decisions of universities.”