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Executive Board column: How can we deal with hate speech?

I was disgusted by the recent Ongehoord Nederland broadcast on 15 September. The racist and hateful comments made by alumna Raisa Blommesteijn were, as far as I am concerned, way over the line and in my opinion also violate Article 1 of the Constitution of the Netherlands.

In this column Annetje Ottow, Hester Bijl and Martijn Ridderbos give a peek behind the scenes at the Executive Board of Leiden University. What does their work involve? What makes them enthusiastic? What challenges do they face? Building a healthy and engaged learning community begins with sharing what you are up to. This time it’s Hester Bijl’s turn.

There was quite rightly a lot of commotion. Leiden emeritus professor Paul Cliteur was also on the programme and did not intervene when Blommestijn made these remarks. I find this astonishing but cannot do much more other than express my disgust. We can have a firm conversation with staff members, but Blommestijn no longer works at the University and Cliteur has retired. And as an employer we do not usually make public statements about staff members; that is a matter between employer and employee and thus falls under privacy.

‘The numerous outraged reactions on social media have made it clear that many associate the entire University with the remarks of a few individuals.’

Pushing boundaries

The numerous outraged reactions on social media have made it clear that many associate the entire University with the remarks of a few individuals. We have over 34,000 students, 6,000 staff and tens of thousands of alumni. Like elsewhere in society, some will constantly push boundaries or cross the line. Students and staff, both with and without a migrant background, regularly express their concerns if we do not speak out against opinions that do cross this line. As much as some opinions do worry me, neither I and the other Board members nor the deans can publicly respond each time to individual comments made by alumni. Then we would spend the whole day playing politics. Society is very heated at the moment. People are quick to use big words or threaten aggression. I worry about the increasing number of threats made to our academics.

Not a political institution

It’s a shame that we are portrayed by some as a far-right stronghold and by others as a far-left club. When we are not a political institution but a university. Our motto is Bastion of Freedom and we stand for freedom of speech and academic freedom. But these are two different things – academic freedom refers to academic work; freedom of speech is much broader. And there are limits to that too. Of course, the debate is allowed to be fierce, but we have also agreed that this freedom should go hand in hand with responsibility. Opinions must not incite hatred, discrimination or racism. We ask our staff to subscribe to these core values and respect the Constitution.

In our day-to-day practice, we are working in all kinds of different ways to create a diverse and inclusive university. Let’s keep on talking – at meetings and within our teams – about that conflict between freedom and responsibility towards one another and society. Let’s keep on calling people out when they exclude others. Only then can academia flourish.

Share your thoughts on this column by sending an email to nieuws@leidenuniv.nl.nieuws@leidenuniv.nl.

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