A Scottish university has been accused of suppressing a documentary made by a Jewish student exposing disgraced academic David Miller, the JC can reveal.
Eliana Silver, who graduated this summer with an undergraduate degree in journalism from Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen, was given a poor grade and told not to make her film public because it could be defamatory.
Media lawyer Mark Lewis criticised the decision, telling the JC: “We have entered into an Alice in Wonderland world, where academic bastions of free speech are advising students not to speak freely.
“This is a classic example of a chilling effect where someone is told not to express their idea in case they get sued.”
Barrister Jonathan Turner, from UK Lawyers for Israel (UKLFI), said the film’s publication would be in the public interest and therefore permitted under the Defamation Act 2013.
Ms Silver is now considering appealing to a higher education regulator.
She decided to examine anti-Jewish racism at British universities because it is a “passion” of hers to expose it.
Her supervisor did not seem to object to the idea, she said, but made a point of telling her: “Make sure you are careful.”
Earlier this year, Ms Silver interviewed students across the UK who had experienced antisemitism on campus. In Glasgow, she spoke to a Jewish student who discussed the university’s failure to acknowledge Jewish holidays, and antisemitic hate speech she had received on social media.
In Cambridge, she examined a case in which a professor of Postcolonial Studies was accused by the Cambridge Jewish society of “echoing historic tropes about media control” over her criticism of a Jewish student journalist.
The core of her film, however, was shot in Bristol, and focused on the anti-Zionist academic David Miller. The former Professor of Political Sociology was fired by the University of Bristol in October 2021 after an internal investigation found he “did not meet the standards of behaviour [we] expect from [our] staff.”
Mr Miller had claimed the Jewish society was an “Israel lobby group” and that Israel is “the enemy of world peace”.
Ms Silver’s documentary featured an interview with Nina Freedman, a former Bristol JSoc president who complained to the university over an incendiary lecture given by Mr Miller.
In the film, Ms Freedman details her multiple complaints to the university over the academic’s behaviour, and its failure to take action at the time.
Quoting directly from Mr Miller, and setting out previously reported information, Ms Freeman said: “[Miller] basically created this whole conspiracy theory he taught in his lecture, where he linked all the Jewish communal organisation in the UK together and put them under the influence of Israel, which basically was saying that they were linked in this conspiracy and they were under the pay or influence of Israel, which is an antisemitic trope.
“Later it got a bit more serious. He started attacking me and other Jewish students personally and saying we were part of this bigger ploy under the state of Israel to get him fired or to have influence in the UK.”
After seeing a first draft of her work, her supervisor reportedly said that Ms Freedman should not be shown making the claim that Mr Miller is antisemitic, despite the well-documented nature of the case.
Ms Silver eventually received a C for her documentary, and was told she would have received a D if not for another piece of work submitted alongside it, she said.
When she raised the poor grade with her supervisor, she was reportedly told the film had the “potential” to land her in court over the claims made about Mr Miller.
Ms Silver told the JC: “They told me not to publish it anywhere. They tried to get me to remove the most sensitive and impactful parts of my story.
“I 100 per cent I feel like I’m being silenced.”
A lawyer from media law firm Briffa, who watched the documentary, concluded that it could be defended on the grounds that it was true.
“Your documentary followed the accounts of three students who shared their own experiences with antisemitism at their respective universities and so on the face of it you would be able to rely on the ‘truth’ defence in a defamation claim,” solicitor Shamina Knights wrote to Ms Silver. Mr Lewis said: “This censorship is more horrifying when it is being used to stop the expression of a legitimate opinion.
“If the university had concern for the student, then they would advise her to allow Professor Miller the opportunity to comment by way of a standard right of reply letter.”
Mr Turner, of UK Lawyers for Israel, added: “I don’t think it is defamatory of David Miller. I think it is clear that the criticisms expressed about him are honest opinions which could be held on the basis of existing facts, so permitted under section 3 of the Defamation Act 2013.
“I also think that publication of the film would be in the public interest, so permitted under section 4 of that Act (although it would have been better if she had invited David Miller to comment).”
A spokesperson for RGU said that the university follows a “robust” quality assurance process where student work related to an award or progression is independently assessed by two internal examiners, as well as an external examiner.
They added: “The university would like to emphasise that our values and ‘Dignity at RGU Policy’ place equity and inclusivity at the core of our university and we do not condone any form of discriminatory behaviour.
“Any allegations from students, applicants or the public of discriminatory behaviour such as racism or antisemitism is and will continue to be fully investigated with a detailed outcome letter under the university’s complaints-handling procedure.” The supervisor has been approached for comment.