Oxford Students Launch Petition to Have John Finnis “Removed” (Updated)

Over 350 people have added their names to a petition calling for John Finnis, emeritus professor of law and philosophy at the University of Oxford, to be removed from his position teaching compulsory seminars in the law curricula at the university.

The petition states that Finnis “has a long record of extremely discriminatory views against many groups of disadvantaged people. He is known for being particularly homophobic and transphobic. He has even advised US state government not to provide legal protection for LGBTQ+ people who suffer discrimination.” The petition also provides examples of what they deem to be his “hateful statements.”

The petition also asks Oxford University to “to clarify its official position on professors who have expressed discriminatory views and behaved in discriminatory ways, especially those who have shown obvious hatred and intolerance.”

In an article in the Oxford Student, Finnis is quoted as saying:

The petition travesties my position, and my testimony in American constitutional litigation. Anyone who consults the Law Faculty website and follows the links in the petition can see the petition’s many errors. I stand by all these writings. There is not a ‘phobic’ sentence in them. The 1994 essay promotes a classical and strictly philosophical moral critique of all non-marital sex acts and has been republished many times, most recently by Oxford University Press in the third volume of my Collected Essays.

Neither the petition nor the article allege any discriminatory treatment of students by Finnis, and his work would appear to be protected by conceptions of academic freedom operative in the UK context.

* * * * *

Though as a matter of policy the demand to remove Finnis from his teaching responsibilities will go nowhere, there is no doubt an interesting question about whether students should have to fulfill their curricular requirements by taking courses from a professor who is on record stating that an important part of their identity is “evil.” We could ask: Should a Jewish student have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that the Nazis were right in believing that there should be no Jews? Or, should an African-American have to take a course from a professor who has publicly argued that it would be advisable for the U.S. to return to legalized slavery? Though most people would think it better if these students did not have to take courses from these professors, it is not clear that the institutional arrangements that would have to be in place to prohibit certain professors from teaching required courses on the basis of their expressed views would, on balance, be preferable, given the level of oversight of, interference in, and administrative power over, academic work that they would likely entail. None of this is to take a position on the matter, but rather to suggest some of the ways in which it is morally and practically complicated.

(Thanks to several readers for the pointer.)

UPDATE 1: This excerpt from a comment I contributed a couple of days ago to the discussion below may be clarifying:

My comments towards the end of my original post were intended to capture the moral remainder of the case; even if we think that as a matter of policy no action at all should be taken against Finnis, the students’ complaints aren’t based on nothing. It is not as if they were complaining about mere disagreement or being challenged by a professor. Being a gay student and having to take a course from someone who thinks the world would be a better place if people like you didn’t exist is importantly different from being a student who has to take a course with a professor who disagrees with her about the justifiability of the death penalty. The precise nature of that difference, and whether it has any policy implications, I’m not taking a stand on.

UPDATE 2 (1/11/19): I just looked at the petition website again and noticed that the language claiming that Professor Finnis teaches required courses has been removed. I interpret that as an admission by the petition’s authors that the original claims that he did teach required classes were mistaken. Since at least 350 people signed the petition while those claims were still in it, and since some of those signatories may have signed the petition only because they thought the courses taught by Finnis were required, the survey, which now was 540 signatories, should be withdrawn. I find it remarkable both that Change.org allows substantive changes to the texts of petitions which have already garnered signatures and that the petition authors apparently thought quietly changing the text in so important a way was acceptable.


John Finnis

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