Note: This post has been updated with a statement from the university and other new information since it was first published. This is a developing story.
The organizers of a planned conference on Israel say they are considering emergency legal action against the UK’s University of Southampton after administrators withdrew permission for the event.
University officials have confirmed that they are considering pulling the plug on the conference, but suggested on Tuesday morning that they may yet back off from that decision.
The news of the cancelation follows an intense smear campaign against the conference and its organizers by Israel lobby groups, columnists and UK government ministers and members of parliament.
The conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” had been scheduled for 17-19 April.
Despite the intense pressure, the university had previously asserted its commitment to “ensure that freedom of speech within the law is secured for members, students and employees of the university, as well as for visiting speakers.”
Hundreds of academics from around the world had signed an open letter urging the university not to cave in to pressure.
“Health and safety”
But on Monday night, organizers said university administrators informed them that permission for the conference had been withdrawn on grounds of “health and safety.”
In a statement (full text), organizers say they were told that “a number of groups may be demonstrating for or against the conference which could present risks to the safety of the participants, students and staff.”
“The university claims that it does not have enough resources to mitigate the risks, despite a clear statement from the police confirming that they are able to deal with the protest and ensure the security of the event,” the statement adds.
The organizers question the explanations they were given and say that the decision to cancel the conference is “grossly disproportionate and therefore may well be illegal and unconstitutional.”
They accuse the university of using security “to rationalize a decision to cancel the conference that has been taken under public pressure of the Israel lobby.”
“We will explore legal emergency measures to prevent the university from canceling the conference, to reverse its decision and to properly collaborate with the police so that the demonstrations can be managed,” the statement adds.
Hundreds of people have already signed on to a new petition calling on the university to rescind a decision that “shows weakness in the face of external pressure and bullying” and undermines “the precious tradition of free speech itself.”
“The University is in discussion with the organizers of the conference ‘International Law and the State of Israel’ about the possibility of withdrawing permission for the event to be held on campus,” a Southampton spokesperson told The Electronic Intifada in an emailed statement on Tuesday morning. “However, this review process is still ongoing. Any decision will be judged purely on considerations around the health and safety of our staff, students and for the general public.”
But a report in The Jewish Chronicle lends weight to organizers’ suspicions that this is a mere pretext.
Board of Deputies of British Jews president Vivian Wineman told the Chronicle that “When we had a meeting with the university vice-chancellor they said they would review it [the conference] on health and safety terms.”
“The two lines of attack possible were legal and health and safety and they were leaning on that one,” Wineman added.
The Board of Deputies is one of several Zionist groups that had campaigned for the university to cancel the conference.
The conference program includes well-known academics and experts including University of California at Los Angeles historian Gabi Piterberg; Nur Musalha, a historian who has written extensively about Zionist plans to expel Palestinians; University of Exeter historian Ilan Pappe and Princeton University emeritus professor and former UN Special Rapporteur Richard Falk, among others.
The Jerusalem Post reported that late last year, “leaders of the Jewish community, including representatives of the Jewish Leadership Council, Board of Deputies and the Union of Jewish Students” sent a letter to the university urging it to cancel the conference.
The UK’s Zionist Federation launched a petition calling on the university to ban it as well, a demand to which several members of parliament added their voices.
The most high-profile criticism came from Conservative cabinet minister Eric Pickles, who warned the University of Southampton against “allowing a one-sided diatribe.”
It is with extreme astonishment and sadness that we have to inform you that the University of Southampton has told us earlier yesterday (30 March 2015) that it intends to withdraw its permission to hold the academic conference on international law and the State of Israel.
We were told that the decision was taken on the grounds of health and safety: a number of groups may be demonstrating for or against the conference which could present risks to the safety of the participants, students and staff. The university claims that it does not have enough resources to mitigate the risks, despite a clear statement from the police confirming that they are able to deal with the protest and ensure the security of the event.
As the law stands, the university is legally obliged to uphold freedom of speech, and – unlike in some engineering projects for example where health and safety may be the only legal obligation – the requirement of minimizing risk should also fall onto the police as the agency that is entrusted with the enforcement of the law (freedom of speech) and the provision of security.
The mitigating measure should therefore include policing in addition to what the university can reasonably provide using its own security resources. We are therefore extremely dissatisfied with the risk assessment conducted by the university which seems to lack consistency; high risks remained high even when seemingly effective mitigating measures were put in place. Crucially and additionally, the risk assessment does not seem to include all possible risk mitigating measures that could be provided by the police.
A number of risks have been identified by the police but it is very clear from the police’s report that they are more than capable of policing the conference and ensuring the safety of university staff, speakers, delegates, students and property. However, instead of accepting this at face value the university decided to focus on the risks identified by the police and ignore their statement about their ability to police the event – we were told the police will never say in writing they are not able to police an event, in other words the university had doubts about the police’s ability to do their job of upholding the law!
The university claims that the police are not able or unwilling to become too involved because the university is “private property,” which we find astonishing. The university is a public space, it was established by a royal charter and it has public roles and duties including upholding freedom of speech and to that extent it should be able to resort to police assistance in order to curb security risks to enable it to fulfil its legal obligation to uphold freedom of speech.
If this is not done, if commitment to safety is not undertaken by the police, freedom of speech becomes an idle worthless notion. At no point were we given an indication that the university has indeed allowed itself the time to seek viable police assistance to supplement its own resources. Additionally, and unconvincingly, the university claims that it is now too late to put proper security arrangements in place. We do not accept that in any way as there are still 18 days left before the conference.
Given the police’s confidence in providing security and given that there are other possible mitigating measures that are yet to be explored that could be put in place to minimize the risk, a decision to cancel the conference would be grossly disproportionate and therefore may well be illegal and unconstitutional. Such an action by Southampton University will severely undermine the public’s confidence in the police’s and the in the university’s ability to protect freedom of speech.
Indeed it will have wider implications for all universities and organizations. We feel that the manner the university communicated with the police and conducted the risk assessment shows that the security argument was used to rationalize a decision to cancel the conference that has been taken under public pressure of the Israel lobby. It is quite simply unbelievable that the university cannot ask the police to handle the risk of demonstrations.
Freedom of speech inherently involves taking risks, and hence the presence of risk cannot be used to curtail it! The UK government and many other governments have refused to give in to attempts by Islamic extremists to stop the publication of pictures of Prophet Muhammad despite serious risks of violence. The correct response by the governments was to confront and contain that violence and not to cancel the publication of these pictures by Charlie Hebdo and others.
This is a sad decision for freedom of speech and for historic Palestine (which includes what is now the Jewish State of Israel and the 1967 occupied territories) and all the people who live there.
We will explore legal emergency measures to prevent the university from cancelling the conference, to reverse its decision and to properly collaborate with the police so that the demonstrations can be managed. In addition we call for the widest and most intense public campaign possible that would urgently encourage the university to reverse its decision and which would allow the conference to go ahead.
Finally, we must make it clear that we have made several attempts to meet with the vice chancellor to consult him on the organization of this conference, and to invite him to open the conference but we have never been given the opportunity to do so. On the other hand, the vice chancellor has met with pro-Israel representatives without ever calling us to attend meetings and we, as professors in the university, feel disempowered and marginalized by this disrespectful behavior.
- Professor Oren Ben-Dor, University of Southampton.
- Professor George Bisharat, University of California, Hastings College of the Law
- Professor Suleiman Sharkh, University of Southampton.
- Ms. Juman Ismail.
Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.