SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: October 01, 2021

Attack Types: Loss of Position

Institution(s):Bristol University

Region & Country:Europe | United Kingdom

New or Ongoing:New Incident

On October 1, 2021, Bristol University fired Professor David Miller following a nine-month investigation over comments he made about Israel.

At a non-university-sponsored, webinar on February 13, 2021, Miller, a sociologist who specializes in subjects including terrorism and propaganda, called for the “end [of] Zionism as an ideology”, and claimed, in the context of a conversation about what he called “the imperial policies of the Israeli state,” that the Israeli government was engaged in an “all out onslaught” against the left globally. The comments sparked protests and calls for Miller’s ouster, including by the University’s Jewish Society – a Jewish student union. In response, Miller stated that “[t]here is a real question of abuse here – of Jewish students on British campuses being used as political pawns by a violent, racist, foreign regime engaged in ethnic cleansing.”  

In a petition circulated on February 26, a group of nearly 200 global academics defended Miller, arguing that “Professor Miller is an eminent scholar. He is known internationally for exposing the role that powerful actors and well-resourced, co-ordinated networks play in manipulating and stage-managing public debates, including on racism.” The petition further stated that Miller’s comments, in response to a question about Israel-Palestine, had been misrepresented as evidence of anti-Semitism.

On March 8, the All-Party Parliamentary Group Against Anti-Semitism, a group of more than 100 politicians, called on the university to take unspecified action for Miller’s comments, and claimed that Miller’s comments had “brought the university into disrepute.”

On October 1, the University of Bristol announced, in a statement published online, that it had fired Miller. The statement noted that the investigation and disciplinary hearing had not found that Miller had engaged in unlawful speech, and did not accuse Miller of anti-Semitism. Rather, the statement said, “a disciplinary hearing found Professor Miller did not meet the standards of behaviour we expect from our staff and the University has concluded that Professor Miller’s employment should be terminated with immediate effect.”

Scholars at Risk is concerned about the termination of a professor in retaliation for extramural expression, within the professor’s field of expertise. Universities should refrain from punishing faculty members for exercising peaceful and responsible expressive activity, especially that which involves an academic’s field of scholarship. While higher education institutions have a right to investigate and take appropriate action in response to alleged discriminatory acts, such investigations should be transparent, conducted with a respect for academic freedom and according to clear standards, and the bases for any disciplinary actions should be clearly articulated.

UPDATE: On February 5, 2024, a Bristol employment tribunal found that the University of Bristol had been unfairly dismissed, ruling that Miller’s “anti-Zionist beliefs qualified as a philosophical belief and as a protected characteristic pursuant to section 10 Equality Act 2010.”