June 29, 2020 - 11:50am

University was once a place that prided itself on freedom of thought, academic inquiry and a free exchange of ideas, but in recent years it has turned into something different. As a university lecturer in geomatics, I can attest to this: earlier this month, I received a polite email from my Head of School stating that an anonymous person had sent a list of tweets that I had ‘liked’ over a 24-hour period to the University’s Equalities Team. My supposed ‘crime’ was that I had liked posts saying ‘All lives matter’, ‘Gender has a scientific basis’ and ones opposed to mass immigration.

The complainant extrapolated from that to say that I was black-hating, woman-hating, immigrant-hating
etc, which is not true. In the complaint, this person also targeted my work by claiming that my physics papers had been blacklisted by journals, which again, is not true.

Last week, I was then told of another complaint received by the University and that there would be an investigation. A senior colleague was appointed investigator and a Zoom meeting was organised for the 1st July to decide whether a disciplinary hearing should be held that could lead to my dismissal.

Feeling that my career was about to implode, I posted the news on Twitter. I received a massive wave of support. After six years of tweeting about a new theory of inertia, my follower count stood at 3000. That day I gained another 7000, including several offers of pro bono help from lawyers and Toby Young’s Free Speech Union (FSU). A lawyer volunteered to represent me at the meeting, with financial backing from the FSU if necessary.

In speaking to lawyers and others, it became clear that there were no grounds for a disciplinary hearing: the Human Rights Act states that publicly-funded bodies (e.g. universities) must protect the freedom of speech of their staff, otherwise they can be taken to court. As soon as my legal team was set up, they asked the university what rule I had broken. The next day the university dropped the case.

This was an incredibly stressful period for me and my family. To think that I could have lost my career to a single complaint about my liked tweets shows just how hysterical the present social mood is. Now more than ever, it is vital that we — and in particular the universities — stand up for enlightenment principles and replace fear with reason and fact.

Mike McCulloch is a physicist, lecturer in geomatics at the University of Plymouth, and author of Physics from the Edge.