Beware of a threat to academic freedom

Nathan Young examines some of the difficulties around academic freedom and free speech that opponents of Dolores Cahill will have to address

The case against Dolores Cahill is, at this stage, pretty obvious to anyone paying attention. She has at least helped with organising mass rallies against the Covid-19 lockdown, and allegedly hosted a party in her castle in Athy. At her rallies, she has made more and more bonkers claims, most recently and notably that the wearing of masks in childhood will lead to a low IQ. On top of that, she has attached herself to a dodgy ‘Travel Freedom Alliance’ called Freedom Airway & Freedom Travel Alliance (FAFTA), whose acronym sounds like it should be the scourge of small farmers in Latin America, and whose response to being questioned on lies on their website is to subtly change the text without ever replying to the journalist. This is not her only weird business venture directly related to anti-lockdown politics, either.

Cahill’s tenure as chair of the laughable yet grotesque Irish Freedom Party (IFP) saw a grand total of no seats being won by the party, despite contesting local and national elections. Even the larger anti-lockdown voices in Irish Public life have avoided association with the professor, presumably over some inclination that people claiming mask usage damages the IQ are talking tripe, and that people who warn of “globalists” are the ideological bedfellows of Alex Jones and David Icke. Even when a good conspiracy theory needs to be voiced, it’s best not to say the quiet part loud, after all.

What is less obvious than Cahill’s inherent danger to public safety and basic decency, are the potential landmines around academic freedom and free speech for academics that could trigger, if her position in the School of Medicine were targeted. The question may not, and is not, a clear cut case of censorship versus free expression, however, the concerns for the right of the lone academic and dissident are clearly central to this conversation.

First, a distinction. Academic freedom and freedom of expression are related but different concepts. Academic freedom is generally understood to address purely the scope of what can be questioned and researched in an academic context. If Professor Cahill were, for example, to find it difficult to research the effects of masks on IQ because UCD branded masks were a lucrative trade and her seniors in the School of Medicine didn’t want to damage that revenue, that would be an attack on academic freedom. Academic freedom does not grant one the right to espouse bull at a rally, because that is not an academic setting.

The far more nebulous concept of free speech is a harder one to work around. While it is either profoundly stupid or unspeakably callous to oppose lockdowns in a global and dangerous pandemic, as Cahill does, her right to protest against them is equal to any other person’s right to peaceful protest. No serious model of political rights could possibly depend on the right to protest but only if the protest were for a “good” cause. If the powers that be thought the cause were good, surely they would have at least begun to resolve the issue and ended the need for a protest? People on the liberal left have also taken to the streets during the pandemic, including Black Lives Matter protesters and Debenhams Picketers, but to the extent that either group have been able to protest relatively unmolested by the Gardaí, the issue arises over the same rights. So far all charges of anti-lockdown protesters have been taken under existing public-order laws, not breaches of Covid lockdown. If Cahill were to face legal action for her protest, it would set a precedent for the treatment of any protesters during the remainder of the pandemic, for any cause.

The reputational damage Cahill brings UCD and the School of Medicine should also be considered. It is already the case that in a huge number of service jobs, including fast food and café chains, staff are at least theoretically expected to follow a code of conduct outside of working hours which asks them to, alongside not taking recreational drugs, refrain from posting anything negative about their employer on social media. These needlessly draconian policies are clearly excessive, and mainly serve to prevent workers from knowing each other's plight. For academics, however, what they say in public is generally read in a different light. As all her critics are quick to point out, this author included, Cahill’s reputation as a researcher and Professor in a School of Medicine are why she has the influence she has, despite even the most generous interpretation of her ‘expertise’ being irrelevant to the vast majority of claims she makes.

It must be reiterated, however, that Cahill is a tenured Professor, and while the vast majority of academics are seeking to increase the number of tenured positions in the academy to better protect academics, a move against Cahill that isn’t carefully planned will result in a de facto weakening of the concept of tenure. Consider the treatment of academics who support Palestinian statehood in the United States. The on-paper wonderful idea of protecting minorities from harm is cynically weaponised to label these people as anti-Semitic on spurious charges. The way a new disciplinary mechanism is introduced, or an old one is interpreted, sets a precedence.

On the 19th of March, two days after Cahill’s infamous tirade in Herbert park, UCDSU President Conor Anderson wrote a letter to the heads of the UCD School of Medicine and of UCD Human Resources seeking an investigation into Dolores Cahill for gross misconduct under the 1997 Universities Act. The act partially defines gross misconduct as “deliberate disregard for health and safety precautions likely to endanger another person”, which Anderson believes was demonstrated. In a press release, he explained “Dolores Cahill has been propagating medically-inaccurate conspiracy theories in service of a far-right political agenda throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Unfortunately, her words are far-reaching. Professor Cahill has amassed a huge following and exerts considerable influence over the general public who do not realise she is not an expert in virology, epidemiology, or public health”.

The issue with this line of attack is that it openly links Cahill’s politics, and not a singular demonstrable harm, apart from her agenda. If this line of reasoning is used to reprimand Cahill, it may have a damaging effect on other politically active academics whose politics may be far less dangerous to students, but far more worrisome for UCD’s coffers. With precedence set around “damaging” political activity, an excuse can be found. This is all without even having addressed what martyrdom may do to her influence, given that her right-wing links have, again, been inextricably linked to the demanded investigation.

On a side note, UCDSU appears to be claiming victory for Dolores Cahill’s resignation from the Chair of the IFP. Her resignation did come just mere days after Anderson wrote to the heads of the UCD School of Medicine and of UCD Human Resources looking for an investigation into Cahill. Meanwhile, there are online forums and pages where members of the small but growing far-right are predicting, or sometimes hoping, that Cahill will soon take on a new role, possibly in a new party. The most popular among these predictions is that she and fellow crackpot Ben Gilroy will soon announce a new party. The question for UCDSU is not so much about whether there is evidence that this is a result of their calls (there isn’t), but whether this would be a victory at all. To treat the chair of the IFP as an important position is to treat the IFP as something other than a cesspit of demagoguery, stupidity, and bigotry. With any luck, Cahill’s resignation is connected to a bitter division over something inane, and whatever new project she embarks on serves only to make her side more impotent. For now, it’s too early to tell.

Cahill has acted with blatant disregard for the concept of truth in her lying speeches, with contempt for the rest of society in the alleged hosting organising of a party in her castle in Athy, and in opposition to reason itself with her mad claims about Natural Law. A solid case against her as a lecturer on the simple grounds that she is reckless could easily be made. To be clear: Cahill being discredited in the eyes of potential followers and removed from authority over students would be a good thing, but if done clumsily will arm UCD with a disciplinary precedence too good to disarm.