Media hate speech against academics and the incitement by ministers endangers academic freedom!

Statement by the Association of Democratic Lawyers (VDJ) dated May 13, 2024

The Association of Democratic Lawyers (VDJ) condemns media incitement and police violence as attacks on the university institution 

Translated by Prof. Bill Bowring, London

As Democratic lawyers, we are shocked by the recent attacks on academic freedom, freedom of expression and professional freedom by government politicians and much of the media. On May 7th, students at the Free University of Berlin set up a protest camp on the university campus to demonstrate against the Federal Republic's involvement in the war in Gaza. The university management had the camp cleared by the police. Images from the eviction document the brutal actions of the police and the mockery of the students by the uniformed officers. The governing mayor of Berlin, Kai Wegener, expressly praised the approach. 

In response to the eviction, Berlin academics wrote an open letter, which has now been signed by well over 1,000 lecturers. In the letter they condemn the evacuation of the camp and the way in which it happened. They call for dialogue even with differing positions. The immediate deployment of the police against the non-violent protest is viewed as incompatible with the institution of the university. 

Federal Science Minister Stark-Watzinger took this open letter as an opportunity to accuse the signatories, who had taken no position on the students' demands or the situation in Israel/Palestine, of defending hatred of Israel and anti-Semitism.

Media companies, especially Springer, then pilloried individual academics and declared them to be supporters of terror and anti-Semitism.  Instead of dealing openly and honestly with the students' concerns and in particular the content of the academics' letter, Stark-Watzinger damaged their position as university members and researchers with hastily formulated, extremely serious accusations. It fueled an atmosphere in which the media hunt for individuals began. If there are attacks on those affected, she also bears personal responsibility for this. Instead of calming the situation with a balanced statement, she deliberately allowed herself to be involved in a media smear campaign and permanently damaged the institution of the university, which is based on open exchange and trust. 

For us as democratic lawyers, the university is a particularly protected space through which free discourse - as a prerequisite for new knowledge - is made possible. The Basic Law grants this protective space to all university members - including students. They are not silent consumers of educational offerings, but rather an essential part of the exchange, testing and consolidation of knowledge. This exchange requires an open space for dissent. It is not up to those in government to determine the framework of the discourse or the scope of the dissent. This is already a serious attack on academic freedom, through which the open cognitive process is being cut off in an authoritarian manner. 

Article 5 of the Basic Law guarantees freedom of science and freedom of expression as essential prerequisites for a free and democratic society. It is incompatible with the Basic Law to assign members of the university to certain government positions or to subject them to a confessional obligation. The state cannot use its reasons for government as a ticket to scientific discourse. In addition to academic freedom, this also violates the professional freedom of those affected. 

As democratic lawyers, we also condemn the increasing brutality of police operations. The way university members were mocked is a warning sign about the state of the German police. For us, the attacks described are in the context of an expansion of executive power against civil society. 170 years ago, the Grimm dictionary briefly and aptly defined a constitutional state as a “state whose purpose is the legal protection of all its citizens”. Those in government must promote this protection of individual legal interests and not violent forms of police action. Anyone who invokes the concept of the rule of law can never use it to justify the severity of the police baton.

  • Our solidarity goes out to all signatories of the “Statement from lecturers at Berlin universities”
  • We condemn the media incitement by those responsible in politics and the media
  • We condemn the evacuation of the protest camp using police violence
  • As democratic lawyers, our goal is to secure academic freedom

Bei Presserückfragen wenden Sie sich an: Dr. Andreas Engelmann, Bundessekretär der VDJ, Tel.: 06971163438, E-Mail:
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