Letter: Robbie Travers and university censorship

Edinburgh University law student Robbie Travers was put under investigation by his university for alleged Islamophobic ‘hate crime’, after he mocked ISIS on social media and a fellow student complained. It was only after a two-month investigation that Travers was eventually cleared of misconduct. Artist Michael Lightfoot wrote an open letter to the vice-chancellor of Edinburgh University, to voice his concern that the spirit of free expression and open debate was undermined by this investigation. Manick Govinda, a Manifesto Club steering committee member, was a co-signatory on the letter, which is republished below.


Dear Sir Timothy O’Shea

We are writing to you in your capacity as Vice Chancellor to applaud the decision taken by your university earlier this month to uphold the principle of free speech and to clear Mr Robbie Travers of the accusations made against him in relation to his recent comments on Islamic State and political Islam.

Irrespective of how one might personally feel about the content of his writings, we are sure you will agree that Mr Robbie Travers has not only done a great service to the University of Edinburgh in bringing about this test case for free speech but also to society at large. At a time when this important principle is subject to increasing attack, most particularly within our universities, Mr Travers is to be lauded for taking a stand.

However, while we believe the University should be commended for its decision to clear him, we are somewhat concerned that it took two months to investigate the matter and reach a verdict. Indeed, we would suggest that the slowness of the investigation process endured by Mr Travers before he was finally exonerated of any wrong doing, effectively served as a form of censorship in and of itself. While we do not know Mr Travers personally, it is evident from his writings and online presence that he is in possession of considerable strength of character, as well as conviction, and therefore not easily intimidated; yet can we be certain that other members of your university – not least its younger members – would be equally undaunted? We believe not, and would therefore urge you in your capacity as Vice Chancellor to ensure that speedier processes are established within your university for addressing such matters in the future.

Despite the scant attention paid by the media to the Robbie Travers case, it is clear that this episode and how it was finally resolved stands as an important test case – not only for your university but also for the academy at large and, arguably, for our society more generally. Ms Allman’s accusations were not only an attack on Mr Travers personally but also an attack on the university and on the principle of free speech more widely. Regardless of whether one agrees or not with the opinions expressed by Mr Travers, it is in all our interests to defend his right to articulate them. A free and open society rests on the freedom of all citizens to voice their opinions and raise their concerns in the public domain and on all citizens to judge for themselves their validity.

In order to mount an effective counter argument against ideas and opinions we disagree with, we must first be exposed to those ideas, as we are sure you will agree. In seeking to silence Mr Travers, Ms Allam did her fellow students and her university a great disservice. The ensuing censorious atmosphere created by such attacks is surely deleterious to academic enquiry and the free exchange of ideas and, therefore, antithetical to what a successful university should be. Should any other student ever hesitate (as many surely already do in the current climate) to speak out in future,
our society is in grave danger.

We would therefore call on you in your capacity as Vice Chancellor to make a public statement on the matter. In so doing, we would encourage you to reaffirm the importance of the principle of free speech and to provide at least some explanation for the university’s delay in reaching its decision. Given your position and standing, we believe a personal response from yourself would command considerable attention and would no doubt hold some sway in determining how the vital principle of free speech is to be understood and defended in the future.

We are aware that your tenure as Vice Chancellor of Edinburgh University is drawing to an end and believe that the occasion provides an excellent opportunity for you to make a personal stand on this issue. May we be so bold as to suggest that it would also serve as an important legacy to your time and service at Edinburgh and, hopefully, would be an inspiration to your successor and to the university community more widely in the years to come.

Yours sincerely,

Michael Lightfoot (artist)
Manick Govinda (member of The Manifesto Club steering group)
Amanda Hunter