Update from the organisers, 31 March
It is with extreme astonishment and sadness that we have to inform you that the University of Southampton has told us earlier yesterday (Monday 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 minimising 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 to all Universities and organisations. We feel that the manner the university communicated with the police and conducted the risk assessment shows that the security argument was used to rationalise a decision to cancel the conference that has been taken under public pressure of the Israeli 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 extremist to stop the publication of pictures of Prophet Mohammad 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 organisation 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 marginalised by this disrespectful behaviour.
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.