Thursday 2 April 2015

Organisers’ Statement following the Vice-Chancellor’s decision on 1 April 2015

As organisers of the conference ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’ due to take place on the 17th of April, we are shocked and dismayed by the Vice-Chancellor’s decision, to dismiss our internal appeal, thus confirming the University’s Senior Management withdrawal of permission for the conference to go ahead on University property. The reasoning for this decision is said to be the University’s legal obligation to provide safety and security to participants, students and employees in the conference venue and all over the campus. The Senior Management claims, based on their risk assessment, that they will not be able to effectively reduce the level of residual risks to an acceptable level. Accordingly, the Senior Management judged that the health and safety risks outweigh the University’s legal obligations and duty to secure freedom of speech within the law for which the Vice-Chancellor asserts an unswerving commitment.

The greatest risk to health and safety that was identified by the Senior Management was that arising from a by and large peaceful demonstration against the conference and possible counter demonstrations by pro-Palestinian groups during the third day. The intelligence about extreme groups that may appear was greatly inflated. We have brought evidence to the VC from pro-Palestinian groups that they in fact have never intended to hold any demonstrations or counter protests during the conference. The general sensitivity following recent terrorist events in Europe was further misused to inflate the risks. In its risk assessment the Senior Management simply assigned a high level of residual risk despite specifying effective measures to reduce it and assurances by the Police that they are able to manage the demonstrations. 

Crucially, and tellingly, the Senior Management was provided with intelligence asserting that the cancellation of the conference will in itself result in similar and possibly larger demonstrations. These demonstrations would present similar, if not greater levels of risk to health and safety. It is therefore astonishing - given the University’s legal duty to secure freedom of speech within the law - that the Senior Management chose to ignore the risks to health and safety arising from the cancellation of the conference, and instead focus on the risks associated with holding it in fulfilment of its legal obligation to securing freedom of speech within the law!

The Senior Management dismissed the Police’s commitment to providing protection as a supplement to what the University can reasonably provide using its own security resources despite the fact that the Police stated clearly their ability to curb such risks. Simply put, the Senior Management caved in to security risks all too easily which even if, for the sake of argument, were founded, is not justifiable. They left it till 16 days before the conference to reach this assessment and organise a response to it and now claim, unacceptably in our view, that it is too late to arrange proper protection.

We feel that the Senior Management behaviour in relation to risk assessment and to providing proper response to it is symptomatic of resorting to a simple weighing process of two legal obligations. They have failed to see the virtually unconditional nature of freedom of speech and the full extent to which security argument ought not to be used to curtail it; appropriate security measures should be used to facilitate it. This shows that the Senior Management fundamentally misunderstood its duty to securing freedom of speech at this great academic institution. We have little doubt that the safety and security argument is used to rationalise the surrender by the Senior Management to political pressure exerted on it by the pro-Israeli Lobby.   

If the decision by the University’s Senior Management is not overturned, the University will lose its uniqueness in providing a public space for creating the kind of rupture in the public sphere that can, within the conference and beyond, generate public debate that overcomes its current uncritically accepted conventional confines. It will fail in its sacred mission to make itself a unique public space: that of guarding the linkage between truth-seeking in every discipline to the pursuit of justice within the wider political community from any political, economic or security threat. This extremely sad and short-sighted decision will send a shameful message to the University’s existing and prospective students.

This decision by the Senior Management cannot be allowed to stand. The stakes for academic public space, for academic freedom and for freedom of speech are too high. The message it sends to other academic institutions and to students all over the world is grave and depressing. It will potentially make campuses obedient and depoliticised, distant and docile corporate spaces. We have therefore, with very heavy hearts, decided to mount an immediate legal challenge to urgently overturn the Senior Management’s decision, to demand that the conference is allowed to go ahead while deploying sufficient security resources including the Police, in the right way, to curb risk to health and safety and security that may arise.

This decision by the University is wrong in law, wrong in morality and wrong for the University of Southampton in particular and for all academic spaces all over the country and the world generally.  

Two of the conference organisers are senior academics at the University of Southampton, and one of them is a graduate of the University. They are very proud to be academics at this great institution and care passionately about it. We hope that immediate legal action will help save the reputation of the University which has sadly been thrown into serious doubt by this decision.

Professor Oren Ben-Dor – University of Southampton
Professor Suleiman Sharkh – University of Southampton
Professor George Bisharat – University of California, Hastings College of the Law

Ms. Juman Asmail LLB (Soton)- Independent writer and political activist