Times caption: Richard Ned Lebow, an expert in political theory at King’s College London, argued that free speech is being suppressed
Following Elizabeth’s piece, just published, a piece in today’s Times by Nicola Woolcock, Education Editor:
A London university academic who was told to apologise after light-heartedly asking someone to press the button for “ladies lingerie” in a lift at a conference is refusing to apologise after a female delegate complained.
Richard Ned Lebow has criticised restrictions on free speech after he was told to apologise to Simona Sharoni, a professor of women’s and gender studies, who was also in the lift.
Professor Lebow, an expert in political theory, and his wife Carol Bohmer, who has taught gender and law, hold positions at King’s College London.
The International Studies Association (ISA), which organised the conference, told him to apologise by tomorrow but he has refused because of the implications for freedom of speech.
Professor Lebow, 76, who was the ISA’s distinguished scholar of 2014, said: “My biggest concern is for younger colleagues who are not as established in their profession as I am, who may find that if they say something that offends it could be the end of their careers.”
He likened his case to book burning by the Nazis in the 1930s and added: “From my perspective there is no way I am apologising because I haven’t done anything wrong. If I did apologise it would show that crazy people like this one can intimidate associations and it will have a chilling effect on everyone. This is also about an issue of humour and the idea that humour is now becoming off limits.”
He has spent much of his career in Britain and seen “an unhealthy trend to suppress free speech” here too. He said: “This is another example of where, alas, the UK imports the worst of America as opposed to the best. There is a chill in universities. Universities should teach tolerance and be places for anybody to express almost any opinion provided it is done in a respectful way and within the law.”
Of the #MeToo movement, he said: “One of the downsides of any positive movement is that it attracts people like this [Professor Sharoni] who want to exploit it for their own ends. Also in the shadow of #MeToo, I suspect some bodies don’t want to give any impression they’re not responsive to complaints of harassment by women, no matter how silly. So had this happened before #MeToo, the result might be wildly different.” He told The Mail on Sunday that his comment in the lift had been a common quip in his youth when attendants would call out the floors in department stores. He said it had also been used in a Harry Potter film.
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