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Polish academics have raised fears about government moves to create a committee to rule on alleged freedom of speech violations in universities, highlighting the involvement of a group of ultraconservative Roman Catholic lawyers in the proposed legislative changes.

Ordo Iuris, which describes itself as defending the Polish Constitution against “radical ideologies that aggressively question the existing social order,” said the ruling Law and Justice Party’s amendments to the controversial 2018 higher education law, to introduce clauses to protect freedom of speech in universities and to create a new committee to rule on alleged breaches, were “based on the draft” it submitted.

The proposed law change follows a high-profile free speech controversy at the University of Silesia in Katowice, where students complained that an academic had expressed homophobic and anti-abortion views during lectures.

Łukasz Bernaciński, a member of Ordo Iuris who is studying for a Ph.D. in law at the University of Łódź, said the organization had published a report in January describing key “violations” of free speech in Polish universities in recent years. Ordo Iuris, he added, “drafted a bill” that it presented to the minister of science and higher education, Jarosław Gowin, a former university rector who is also the deputy prime minister.

“The project met with great interest, so the ministry decided to start work on changing the law,” Bernaciński continued. “Currently, the Ministry of Science and Higher Education has drafted a bill that is based on the draft submitted by Ordo Iuris Institute.”

The Silesia controversy had “a direct impact” on Ordo Iuris’s interest in the issue, he said. Students had been “outraged at the Christian concept of the family, taught based on scientific foundations and research,” he said.

“This means that there has been a dangerous precedent that may prohibit universities from presenting research on specific phenomena and prevent academic debate on these topics,” Bernaciński said. The new committee on free speech “would issue nonbinding recommendations to university authorities,” he added.

A ministry spokesman said Ordo Iuris “did not participate in the preparation of the project” but rather was “one of many organizations and institutions … invited to participate during the open public consultation phase.”

Jarosław Płuciennik, professor of the humanities, cultural studies and religion, and former pro vice chancellor for education at the University of Łódź, said committee members would be “like disciplinary judges who will introduce a lot of stress on academics, who will be afraid of dealing with many issues because they will be afraid of losing their jobs.”

He added, “It’s a philosophy which can be described in two words: discipline and punish.”

Płuciennik feared the proposed law was a way to “allow expressions of views in academia,” potentially providing a platform in universities for those in the Catholic Church who campaign for a total ban on abortion, or for climate change deniers.

Ordo Iuris is “very radical” and “very proud of influencing people in Poland” and sees academia as a “liberal, leftist” bastion, Płuciennik said.

The ministry’s spokesman said the proposed law change “addresses many situations that indicate the need for intervention to protect academic freedom, including freedom of expression when teaching, research or a debate open to various scientific arguments is at risk.”

He said the ministry was “fully aware” of the concerns of some academics. “The representative bodies of the Polish academic community are actively involved in a dialogue with the ministry; we [are] all working constructively towards formulating an optimal legal framework,” he added.

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