LONDON, Oct 25 (Reuters) - A lawmaker who sparked censorship fears when he asked universities for details of how they teach Brexit was misinterpreted and regrets the request, Britain’s minister for universities Jo Johnson said on Wednesday.
Chris Heaton-Harris had sent university heads a letter asking them to supply the names of professors teaching European affairs “with particular reference to Brexit” along with copies of their syllabus and links to online lectures.
One university boss said the letter sent a chill down his spine while Alistair Jarvis, chief executive of Universities UK which represents university principals, said: “This request suggests an alarming attempt to censor or challenge academic freedom.”
But minister Johnson distanced the government from the letter on Wednesday and said Heaton-Harris had written it in a personal capacity as he was interested in writing a book on Europe.
“I‘m sure Chris is regretting this very much... A letter that could have been misinterpreted should probably not have been sent in this way,” Johnson told BBC radio.
“He probably didn’t appreciate the extent to which this was going to be misinterpreted.”
Heaton-Harris, who has a role in organising how the ruling Conservative party votes in parliament, said in a tweet he believed in free speech at universities.
Johnson said he had spoken to Heaton-Harris and that the letter had been motivated by his “long-standing interest in European affairs and the history of European thought.”
“He... was pursuing enquiries of his own that may in time, I think, lead to a book on these questions,” Johnson said.
“It was more of an academic enquiry, rather than an attempt to constrain the freedom that academics rightly have.” (Editing by Stephen Addison)