Belgium: Hot potatoes: Academic sacked after expressing approval for anti-GM direct action

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- Freedom of speech row following sacking
- Critics demand immediate reinstatement

The sacking of an academic researcher from her post has recently been the cause of some controversy in Belgium. On 29 May, environmental activists stormed a field of genetically modified potatoes in Belgium, breaking through a security cordon and destroying the plants located within. The action was undertaken by the Field Liberation Movement, whose website declares that they undertake "civil disobedience against gmo-fields in Belgium". In the clashes that followed, police claim that around ten officers were injured; the organisers of the protest say that eight on their side were manhandled by the police. Barbara van Dyck, a researcher concerned with "social innovation and territorial development" [1] was present at the action, although she did not participate. She did, however, publicly express her support for the action, which led to her sacking on 3rd June by the Catholic University of Leuven.

Although the sacking of a researcher for any involvement with an act protest might be contentious, outrage in this case has stemmed from the fact that her dismissal was solely due to her expression of solidarity with the activists from the Field Liberation Movement. This has raised debates over the university's attitude toward academic freedom and freedom of speech. A former rector of the Catholic University noted in a 2003 speech that academic freedom consists not just of undertaking independent research, but also the individual freedom of the academic to

"take a critical stance toward certain tendencies of parts of society. This individual freedom is the cornerstone of our academic identity". [2]

This statement echoes that of the UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personnel, which states that all higher education teaching personnel:

"should not be hindered or impeded in exercising their civil rights as citizens, including the right to contribute to social change through freely expressing their opinion of state policies and of policies affecting higher education. They should not suffer any penalties simply because of the exercise of such rights". [3]

Critics state that the sacking of a researcher for expressing a personal opinion contravenes these standards, as well as provisions contained in international human rights treaties such as the European Convention on Human Rights. Academics have addressed an open letter to the rectors of the Catholic University, [4] and there are two separate petitions demanding van Dyck's reinstatement open for signature [5].

[1] Association of European Schools of Planning, 'No dismissal for researcher Barbara van Dyck!', 7 June 2011
[2] De Standaard, 'Neen aan het ontslag van Barbara Van Dyck', 10 June 2011
[3] UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher-Education Teaching Personel, 11 November 1997
[4] De Morgen, 'Leuvense rector heeft meer dan één plant uitgetrokken', 10 June 2011
[5] 'We demand the immediate and unconditional reinstatement of researcher Barbara van Dyck!'; 'Petitie tegen ontslag Barbara Van Dyck'

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