EU law academics seething after Tory MP requests access to Brexit lectures

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He might regret it when they send over Factortame notes

Image via Instagram (@crlhlms)

A Tory MP and staunch Brexiteer has written to universities to ask which academics are teaching about Brexit, what they’re teaching and links to their lectures. As the government distances itself from the bizarre letter, law academics have moved to condemn Heaton-Harris’ “McCarthyite” request.

The letter (in full below) was the work of Chris Heaton-Harris, the MP for Daventry and a former MEP. While it wasn’t addressed to law faculties directly, anyone that’s had to grapple with Van Gend en Loos and Internationale Handelsgesellschaft will know EU law is a compulsory module on qualifying law degree syllabuses, alongside: tort, contract, public, equity, crime and land. This means Heaton-Harris’ letter is right in law academics’ territory, and seems to have hit a nerve.

Professor Chris Ashford, for one, was quick to condemn the letter as “McCarthyite”. The Northumbria Law School academic, who specialises in law and society, thinks Heaton-Harris’ request was a misjudged interference into law schools and other higher education departments.

Equally peeved was the head of Durham Law School, Thom Brooks, who told us:

“I’d urge everyone to turn up the pressure to get this request withdrawn. We shouldn’t have to refuse a request that shouldn’t be made.”

While Carl Gardner, who teaches at BPP Law School, likened Heaton-Harris’ remarks to hunting witches.

Heaton-Harris has responded to the barrage of criticism, tweeting: “To be absolutely clear, I believe in free speech in our universities and in having an open and vigorous debate on Brexit.” Yet the social media fire continues to burn.

In and among the flames, everyone’s wondering: why was the letter actually sent?

Was the Eurosceptic MP hoping to push some sort of pro-Brexit influence onto the syllabuses? Well, Theresa May has said it was nothing to do with her, so we can’t point to some sort of Brexit government policy.

The latest comments from across Legal Cheek

Maybe MP-ing is a little dry nowadays, and Heaton-Harris was planning on keeping busy by learning about preliminary reference proceedings and the differences between directives and recommendations. The material could come in handy, quips University of East Anglia law lecturer Paul Bernal:

Or maybe you’ll agree with Conor Gearty, a professor of human rights at the London School of Economics and a founding member of Matrix Chambers. “I think it’s just a bog standard backbencher looking for attention and/or currying favour with the Brexit gang,” he told us.

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Loony Lefties? No.

It’s the loony righties that are the problem.

Hospitals, prisons, schools, universities, libraries, the roads, railways – everything a mess thanks to them, and they’re busy chasing up paranoid priorities such as this.



Go 40 years back and it was the loony lefties causing problems


Different anon

Right – and they got stamped down into submission to the point that they were no longer the problem. Which was appropriate at the time.

And now the loony righties, as Anon above pointed out, are very much to the fore.

Fear of the loony left does not mean the loony right cannot be challenged – and they very much need to be !!! Look at the Tories currently – it’s like the lunatics have not just taken over the asylum but gained a permanent freehold interest in it.

You want to side with the likes of IDS, Leadsom, Cash, Redwood, Grayling, Gove, Bone, Banks and Farrage (and that f’king fossilised lunatic Lawson) then imesho you really need to take a long hard look at yourself…



What’s wrong with wanting to monitor traitors? We would want to know if there were traitors serving foreign intereesrs in the police, military, telecoms or heavy industry, so why not academia?



I would not wish on my worst enemy to be made to read my EU lecture notes.


Anonymous Coward

I don’t get why the academics are scared of providing that information or what they think a backbench Tory MP could possibly do with it?

Which academics are teaching about brexit and what they are teaching is hardly a Mcarthyite witch hunt????



When Chris pays the same tuition fees I had to pay to access the very same learning materials, he is welcome to all the slides he wants.


Not Amused

This isn’t in the slightest way sinister. However as a hysterical overreaction was entirely foreseeable, it is unfortunate it was sent.

It’s depressing that silencing this man and relentlessly hounding him is portrayed as a ‘protection’ of free speech. It clearly isn’t. The slightest hint of a debate or a contrary view to that held by the mob and, once again, outrage and hysteria were used to silence debate.



You’re really full flow with the psychological projection now, aren’t you?



I find it hard to see how a demand for names of academics and their course materials without any explanation whatsoever about why these are needed from a government whip could be perceived as anything other than threatening. It was an extraordinary letter.



Also, in this case I don’t think that it’s the press/public who have silenced debate. I’m sure that any news outlet would welcome an interview with this guy, to hear his explanation. He’s being silent because the government have told him to keep quiet.



Wake the f up for once in your life !

Did you actually read the letter ? Or are you just responding on hearsay as you always do.

Dear Christ… 😐


Corbyn. Symphathiser

Do tell, that ‘debate’ was being had here?


Not Amused

Well, I think there are lots of issues to debate and I’m always going to be on the side of people who want to discuss and debate things and against those who think debate should not happen.

I cannot speak for this man; but I am highly conscious (not least because of the abuse I suffer here) that there was a disproportionately emotional reaction by the losing side in the referendum. That has largely distorted the narrative and needs to be addressed.

As a result of the distortion in the narrative in schools and universities and in the media, I am increasingly seeing young people who recite, without any critical analysis, the ‘mantra’ on Brexit. That is harmful to them. Imagine if I were a less kind human being, I might take offence given I voted leave, when I am told that all leave voters are stupid and racist. But because young people are being told that all of ‘us’ voted one way they are exposing themselves to risk.

I also think that questions should be asked about whether we want or need a University of Worcester. It will also be interesting to see how much money these institutions which hold strong pro-EU views receive from the EU.

Instead, what I had to listen to yesterday was faux outrage from an academic at Durham who tried (and failed) to simultaneously convince me that the letter was both sinister and that all the information was available online anyway. You can’t be a sinister clown.

Faux outrage is used to silence legitimate questions and debate. This is happening time and time again. Even if you think that is a good thing regards questions about the EU, I can guarantee you that there will be future topics (non-EU related) where you will want debate and where you miss it when it is gone.

Using claims you are protecting free speech in order to suppress free speech was double-speak too far for me.



Stupid racist





You’re worse than the racists and the idiots. You are educated and should know better but you willingly walk the youth of today off a cliff with your selfish, greedy vote. I hope Brexit causes you to lose your income and in turn you fail to pay your gardeners, who in turn decide to burn your property and all your hopes and dreams to ground so you are left sitting with the youth you have screwed over. You horrible old hag.



Perhaps this is a bit harsh, but I share the sentiment. Not Amused – you should have good, long, hard look at what you have done.


Free speech literally has nothing to do with this. A weird Tory sent a weird and slightly sinister letter demanding information from universities and they told him to sod off. Everyone was within their rights to do everything in that course of events.

Now, unless you think this MP is desperate to learn more about EU law, which, given he’s a Brexitard I highly doubt, the obvious explanation is that he wanted this to wave it about and scream about how universities are brainwashing law students by teaching them facts about EU law rather than Brexitard propaganda and lies. Refusing to give him materials to do this is not ‘silencing’ him.



A “disproportionate emotional reaction from the losing side in the referendum”? Where on earth do you get this from? If you’re saying that academics are mostly pro-remain and it was academics who were outraged by the letter you miss the crucial fact that it was academics who were sent the letter in the first place…!

The reaction was nothing to do with whether or not it is right to leave the European Union, it was based on the fact that it is wrong for a member of government (which a government whip is) to use his position to exert pressure on academics. And writing for a list of names of academics interested in a political issue in which the government has a position looks very like an attempt to exert such pressure. It would be exactly the same if this was a Labour government. I think you overestimate the extent to which people who voted remain now consider themselves to be on one “side” of the country (I did and I don’t) and dramatically underestimate the extent to which academics care about academic freedom.



Why is it less of a “debate” for universities to have told this guy to fuck right off than it would have been for them to roll over and give him the information he wanted, no questions asked….?


Corbyn. Symphathiser

Okay, this is a very muddled post with a fair amount to unpack, so please be patient with me, dear readers.

To begin with, you were asked what debate was trying to be had by his requesting the names of “which academics are teaching about Brexit, and what they are teaching”. Saying “there are lots of different debates” doesn’t answer my question. Obviously my question can’t really be answered, it was rhetorical, since Heaton-Harris was absolutely not trying to have a debate. Rather than accept this, you deflected into “debates are a thing that exist” and boasted about how pro-talking about things you are. This is not only a useless non-answer, but is perhaps an example of this ‘virtue-signalling’ I’ve heard so much about.

You go on to say that a surplus of emotion has “warped the narrative” – I’m not sure what narrative you’re referring to here, but given your previous postings, one might imagine you consider the narrative to be “Brexit is wonderful and nothing bad will happen”. What you appear to actually be saying then, is “people disagreeing with me are warping the narrative”.

You point to emotions, but sadly there is a wealth of non-emotional evidence which points to Brexit being a catastrophe, not least of which is the Conservative government’s consistent incompetence, fantacism and weakness. We also have numerous industry bodies, economists and think tanks which show that Brexit will be bad for the economy as well, but you’ve made it clear in the past that statistics which disagree with you are all politically motivated, so there’s not much point delving into this further. I will note however that wilfully ignoring evidence which doesn’t suit you is not a shining example of the “critical analysis” you accuse young people of lacking.

I’m also unsure as to what you mean when you say “they expose themselves to risks” – do you mean students, or people who voted Brexit? If students, I don’t see how they are exposing themselves to risk by thinking that Brexit will be a nightmare, especially when, at the present time, all evidence suggests this will be the case. If you mean people who voted Brexit, you presumably mean “people will be critical of them for doing a thing”. Well, yes. If you voted Brexit, and say this to a remain voter, they are likely to think you made a mistake, and will probably tell you so. Calling someone racist or thick for doing so may not be warranted, but one must accept that one’s actions have consequences, even social ones. I’d have thought you would take these moments as an opportunity to start a debate, but I suppose not.

I’m unsure as to why you feel qualified to say that anyone who is critical of Heaton-Harris’ extraordinary letter – up to and including the chancellor of Oxford – are all engaging in ‘faux outrage’. I think it’s perfectly right for academics to be outraged that a member of the government is attempting to keep tabs on them in this way. One might accuse your ‘oh but the free speech’ posts of being faux outrage as well, but since one cannot delve into the inner recesses of your mind, this isn’t really a productive avenue of thinking, so your accusations that people who don’t like the government poking their noses into their business are only pretending to be upset is a bit weak as well, I’m afraid.

One might indeed question the necessity of the University of Worcester, but the letter Heaton-Harris sent wasn’t trying to do that, and your insertion of such a question into the current dialogue smacks of “this university embarrassed a Tory, therefore the university should be shut down”. I’m not saying this is what you think, of course, but you should be aware that is how it may be interpreted.

Finally, Heaton-Harris free speech is not and has not been threatened. If I demanded you give me all your credit card details, and you refuse, my free speech hasn’t been shut down. One might also turn this argument back on you: you might not care if the government invades the privacy of one class of individuals, but you might not like it so much when Mr. Heaton-Harris comes knocking for your personal details, and insists that they be handed over, following the precedent ‘Brexiteers must not be questioned’.

What trumps all this, however, is that we know that you don’t actually care for free speech – you only care for it when it suits you. In the run-up to the election you complained that stories were along the lines of “students prefer Labour”, and later “now lawyers prefer Labour as well”, complaining that LC had become too political and should keep to a remit of being a gossip site. You didn’t hold this view in the run-up to the Brexit referendum, when you didn’t miss an opportunity to cheer lead a leave vote, even if this included selective uses of information.

Finally, of course you can be sinister and also a clown. Just go and see IT.


Not Amused

Students and young people reading this website need to understand that there is no profit in expressing strong political views in interviews: either for university or for jobs.

There is no consensus view. People who keep telling you that there is are misleading you. You have every chance of being interviewed by someone who disagrees with what these people keep pretending is a consensus and that can easily go against you.

You are better off avoiding the topic completely and not listening to these people.


Eh? That’s a complete non sequitur – no one has said anything about it being a good idea to express political views in an interview. And everyone knows not to do this, it’s obvious. Also no one has said anything about a ‘consensus view’ (on what? on whether it was right to send that latter? on Brexit?)

If you are so keen on debate why not actually respond to the points made by the poster who has taken the time to actually think about your rambling post above?

Corbyn. Symphathiser

Thank you for your support, but I didn’t expect NA to give a substantive response to my post – that’s not their way of doing things. It was primarily for the benefit of other readers, so that they’re not taken in by NA’s argument that “total obedience and deference to the [Conservative] government is actually the highest form of free speech”.

I think that NA was trying to address an area where I conceeded I was confused – who is ‘risk’ being introduced to when young people look at Brexit, its negotiations and the predictions made by numerous independent bodies saying it will be bad, and was attempting to clarify their positions. So I’m grateful to NA for their attempt.

Sadly, as you point out, it’s a nonsense reply – no-one was arguing that young people should go to interviews (at university, for jobs or elsewhere) and scream “Brexit is awful!”. Job and university interviews weren’t mentioned at all, in fact, as you say. Just another deflection to avoid engaging with the larger substance of my post, per the norm.


In fact, the reality is that the more intelligent people know that Brexit will be good for the UK in several respects.

Many academics and lawyers are frankly not that intelligent, and some of the intelligent ones get money – directly or indirectly – from the EU, which is sufficient to buy their support. This is money, incidentally, that had its origin in the labour of ordinary working British people.

Communists always used young people as they are the most easily manipulable – Red Guards in China etc. Once you get older you get harder to propagandize as you have seen and experienced enough of reality to know that it does not tally with the party line.

You can always tell when people have been fully propagandised as they resort to insults and bullying, as here. The truth does not fear debate.

Corbyn. Sympathiser

More laughable statements (which don’t even qualify as arguments) – “actually, people who agree with me are very smart and clever, whereas people who disagree with me are universally idiots or corrupt or both”, then just a bit of red scaremongering because, well, why not? Why engage with arguments when it’s easier to just say “actually I’m right because I said so and you are a commie”? It’s totally your right to exercise your free speech in this matter, but you hurt your own cause (i.e. the notion that Brexit is good) when you can’t defend it well.

You are, of course, not alone here. The Financial Times reports that when the Foreign Secretary is given reports on why Brexit will be a disaster, he puts his fingers in his ears and hums ‘God Save The Queen’ until they go away.
The Brexit minister goes to Parliament to say that Parliament can have a vote on a deal… after it’s already gone through (talk about getting back control!).
The Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has to go to Brussels for dinner with Juncker and beg him like a dog help her to shore up her failing, miserable leadership in the face of government incompetence and try to get something, anything she can present to her own people which isn’t “we’re screwed”.

Were those, perhaps, the very intelligent people you were referring to?


Can I thumbs-down this more than once? Seriously!


Anonymously tired

You must have missed the part where the Durham professor said that while module lists and staff research interests are usually found on websites, links to lecture capture of classroom discussions are not — and that was a particular problem with the request. Students engaged in discussions shouldn’t do so with any thought that their comments might be trawled to score political points in the Commons by a MP who can say whatever he wants without legal repercussion — dragging innocent people through the mud as he whips up faux outrage.



Corbyn. Imposter.



Just Anonymous

Asking for people’s names without clearly explaining why you want their names is rather silly.

However, I don’t think there was any sinister intent behind this. On Today this morning, Joe Johnson claimed that Heaton-Harris merely wanted this information for academic research purposes, as he is intending to write a book about Brexit.

I can’t know for sure whether that explanation is true. However, I find it plausible, and I struggle to think that a genuine McCarthy-like attempt to find and persecute academics would have been done in such a clumsy manner.



Let him pay a fair proportion of the tuition fees then to feed his academic mind.



I understand that academia has interpreted the letter in their own paranoid way but there is, of course, another way to interpret his letter: he is asking for help from academic experts because Parliament, not just the Government, need help from academic experts.



That’s clearly not the explanation — having a list of all academics teaching on Brexit and copies of their syllabuses could not be of any conceivable assistance. Even the MP himself doesn’t claim that this is the reason — he’s leaked that it was “research for a future book” which sounds made up.



Yes, made up after the fact.

He used House of Commons letter form too, so the academics can hardly be blamed for thinking he was acting in his capacity in government.



Egg-fking-xactly !!!



Maybe Tories realised they need someone to teach them how the EU works



Maybe they should speak to their MEPs instead of out-of-touch EU law professors



Tories are horrible people.



Where can I sign up for more such profound insights?



Since you are in a permanent state of having your head up your arse, just look around and you should see your ever-quivering prostrate gland. You may sign that.



It depends what the follow up to the letter was intended to be. Circulating content to a critic and then sending the critic’s narrative to stir up trouble for the academics concerned, would be a worse case scenario.

He has already tipped off the
Vice Chancellor and you can infer from the article that Vice Chancellors have passed the letter on. There’s no indication of them pushing back.

It kills the boredom.



They should be pedantic in response and only send them details of the “Professors” asked for.








The info he was asking for is all in the public domain.



Not everything was the public domain, such as the links to live capture teaching in classrooms so he could snoop in on discussions between lecturers and students to selectively smear individuals from the safety of the House of Commons floor. You forgot that bit…


I P Standing

Wouldn’t it be funny if, instead of silence or opprobrium, he received hundreds of thousands of pages from 120-odd universities. That may keep him quiet for a few months.

Seriously, though, taking away the polite polish of the letter, he is asking:

“Tell me the names of who is teaching anything about Brexit at your college, and what they are saying.”

It is the part where he wants to know the names of people that makes it sinister. Curiosity about syllabus content is one thing, but asking for people’s names sounds like the seeds of a witch hunt. What kind of book could possibly need such information? Unless it was a little black book with “Brexit Newspeak Hitlist” on the front page.

A previous poster commented that it looked too clumsy to be a Macarthy type witch hunt, but given the level of intelligence displayed by various members of parliament, and especially on Brexit, I would say it fits right in.



I missed the bit of the letter where the universities were “required” to provide the information.

It was a request that could be declined or ignored with no legal consequence.



FOIA requests don’t need to be in a particular format or state that they are such to bite?



It wasn’t a FOIA request.



How can you tell?



The letter expects a reply in the last paragraph. It is custom and practice for a vice chancellor to reply to an mps letter. I dont think you missed that really, did you ?



Hence the the observation that the request could be “declined”.

No legal consequence to declining or ignoring.


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