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Many of you are now waking up with the distressing news of another ‘harassment scandal’ in philosophy, this time at Oxford, involving Jeffrey Ketland (a lecturer at Pembroke College) and a student who committed suicide in June of last year. The reports available so far come from news outlets such as the Daily Mail, the Telegraph and The Times (especially the first two, not known for a high level of journalistic impartiality).

Full disclosure: Jeff is a friend of mine, we co-blog at M-Phi and have been friends for a few years. There is much information concerning these tragic events that I got from him, and which I am not at liberty to share at this point (obviously). What does seem to me to be worth pointing out now is that the articles on the story seem to suggest that the harassment accusations have been confirmed, which is not the case at this point. Jeff merely received a harassment warning, and for those of us not familiar with the British legal system, it may not be clear what this amounts to. Brian Leiter links to a useful that clarifies the concept, and here are some relevant passages:

Harassment warnings can be issued by police officers with little or no prior investigation of the original allegation and there is a real concern that this is later incorrectly presented as, or perceived by some to be, little short of a conviction.

A harassment warning can be given by police following an allegation which, if true and if repeated, would amount to an offence under the PHA. Until or unless further similar allegations are made, there is not enough evidence to charge the person with harassment, hence the warning.

A harassment warning is not a criminal conviction – simply a notice that a complaint has been received. The behaviour complained of, by itself, does not amount to a crime.

To be clear, the harassment accusations have so far not been confirmed (or disconfirmed, for that matter) by any official investigation, so at this point in time there is no official conclusion as to what exactly happened. Thus, at the very least, at this point we should be careful when using factive terminology like ‘the student was harassed by the lecturer’, ‘the harasser’, ‘the victim’ and such like, as none of this has been corroborated by investigation. That the student took her own life is an extremely distressing turn of events, obviously, but to draw causal connections between this outcome and her complex interactions with Jeff Ketland (they had known each other since 2008), as these reports seem to suggest, is (at this point in time at least) entirely unwarranted. (Some of the articles do mention other distressing recent events in the student's life.)

(Some readers may also be wondering why this is coming up now, if the suicide took place in June last year. What happened is that the inquest, the juridical procedure to establish cause of death, took place yesterday, February 26th, and this is how the story 'leaked' to the press.)

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