LONDON — British academics accused a lawmaker from the governing Conservative Party on Tuesday of infringing on intellectual freedom by asking universities to provide information on professors who teach about Britain’s vote to leave the European Union.
The letter from euroskeptic legislator Chris Heaton-Harris requested the names of professors “who are involved in the teaching of European affairs, with particular reference to Brexit.” Heaton-Harris also requested copies of syllabuses and links to online lectures.
University of Worcester Vice Chancellor David Green said he “felt a chill run down my spine” when he read the letter.
It “appears so innocent, but is really so, so dangerous,” Green said. “Here is the first step to the thought police, the political censor and Newspeak.”
Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of higher education umbrella group Universities U.K., described the request as “an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.”
Heaton-Harris is a Conservative whip, one of the lawmakers tasked with maintaining party discipline in Parliament, and a strong supporter of Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.
Some pro-Brexit politicians have accused pro-EU figures in the media and academia of trying to undermine Britain’s successful exit from the bloc.
Prime Minister Theresa May’s office stressed that Heaton-Harris did not write the letter at the government’s behest.
“Free speech is one of the foundations on which our universities are built,” May’s office said.
It was not immediately clear why Heaton-Harris was seeking the information or how many universities received the letter. His office referred questions to the Conservative Party, which did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
“To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit,” the lawmaker tweeted.