Oxford dons demand university changes 'unlawful' social media policy

Oxford dons demand university changes its ‘unlawful’ social media policy because it inhibits free speech after academic was accused of harassing student in ‘Hinduphobia’ row

  • The university has come under fire from dons who claim its policies are too strict
  • It comes after a ‘Hinduphobia’ row involving academic Abhijit Sarkar last year
  • Dr Sarkar says he was threatened after criticising student Rashmi Samanta
  • She claimed he had harassed her to the university, which upheld her complaint
  • An Instagram post by Dr Sarkar was reported to the police, but no action taken 

Dons at Oxford are demanding the university changes its ‘unlawful’ social media policy because they believe it inhibits free speech. 

A group of academics at the world-leading institution say its policies on harassment and social media are in breach of its legal duty to protect freedom of speech as they prohibit ‘speech that is lawful’. 

They claim the policies ‘frustrate academic freedom – the life blood of this university – and harm academic careers’.

It comes after the university was caught up in a ‘Hinduphobia’ row when an academic criticised a student who had been elected to lead the student union. 

Dr Abhijit Sarkar, a postdoctoral researcher into the history and anthropology of modern south Asia, said he was subjected to death and rape threats online and accused of ‘Hinduphobia’ for a post about Rashmi Samant. 

Dr Abhijit Sarkar (pictured), an academic at Oxford University, claimed he was subjected to rape and death threats after criticising a student on social media

Rashmi Samant (pictured) resigned as president-elect of the Oxford University Student Union after being accused of making racist and anti-Semitic posts on Instagram

He linked Ms Samant, who was the first female Indian student to lead the Oxford University Students’ Union, and her family to far-right Hindu nationalism on Instagram.

After this his post, which had been made after Ms Samant resigned the role of President-elect of the union, was reported to the police and investigated, but no further action was taken. 

Ms Samant resigned from her position in February 2021 amid accusations she had made racist, anti-Semitic and transphobic posts on Instagram, the Time of India reports. 

Ms Samant claimed she had been targeted for her religion and bulled because of the allegations and complained to the university that Dr Sarkar had harassed her. This complaint was upheld. 

Now academics at the university have called for changes to its social media guidelines in a question tabled to Oxford’s Congregation, the sovereign body made up of 5,000 members that act as its parliament.  

The question was tabled by Michael Biggs, professor of sociology, and Roger Teichmann, tutor and fellow in philosophy, and signed by seven others, including Nigel Biggar, professor of pastoral theology.

They criticised social media guidelines that state staff must treat one another with ‘professionalism’ and ‘courtesy’, stating: ‘The requirement that academic staff so conduct themselves is reasonable but legally baseless – speech that lacks respect, professionalism, etc, is still free speech within the law.’

Dons at Oxford University (pictured) have called for the institution to change its social media policies

They added that ‘as a matter of principle, the [social media] policy of the university – as an institution founded on tolerance, free thought and free expression – should in all circumstances be more liberal and open-minded than the policy of social media platforms’.

The dons said that failure to safeguard academic freedom ‘poses a grave risk to the university’s reputation’.

In a statement, the university said: ‘The university is both allowed and obliged to take action in response to concerns about the treatment of a member of the university community by a fellow member of the same community and the university is confident that its policy and procedure on harassment and its social media guidance reflect and comply with its legal obligations.’

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