Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Conference postponement

14th April 2015

Dear Friends,

A hearing was held in the High Court today on our application for an injunction to compel Southampton University to host our conference. Unfortunately, the court sided with the university, despite the strengths of our case. We will continue pursuing justice for both Palestine and for freedom of speech. We are now contemplating the best way of pursuing an appeal against this decision.

Our painstaking efforts to locate a private venue have also not borne fruit. We have exhausted all possible venues in Southampton from private to community owned spaces. Several venues confirmed our booking initially as an alternative, and then cancelled. In this light, we cannot risk receiving you here only to have an alternative venue cancel precipitously.

It is with great regret, therefore, that we must postpone the conference International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism.  We have an amazing programme and we will immediately start planning for its execution. Please cancel your travel arrangements as soon as possible.

It has been a very difficult few weeks. We have had to manage both the internal process in the university, launch a legal suit, handle finances and budgets, manage public collective statements, and re-book speaker accommodations, cancelled by the university without any notice.

We would like to thank Keren Ben-Dor who has stepped in and done tremendous work in organising accommodations and communicating with everybody.  We also thank our amazing legal team: Mark McDonald, Shivani Jegarajah, Mohamed Elmaazi and Paul Heron, for their strenuous work and fabulous argument.

Last but not least we would like to thank you all for supporting this conference, and for bearing with us through a period of great uncertainty.

We will meet in the conference very soon. The pursuit of justice and peace in Palestine continues, and we must keep solidarity in the face of this disgraceful failure on the part of Southampton University.  We must continue to protest publicly against the university decision, and use the moral strength of our cause to ensure freedom of speech and academic debate - for our own sakes as well as for others. We are confident that in time, we will, indeed, prevail.

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!

Wednesday, 1 April 2015

A selection of letters from academics to the University of Southampton concerning cancellation of the conference

1. Joint letter by 15 academics from SOAS, Goldsmiths, and others.

We, the undersigned, write to urge you to rescind your decision regarding the conference “International Law and The State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” that is to be held at Southampton University, April 17-19th. In our view, the decision taken by management, to withdraw its permission for the conference to go ahead as planned, is a gross violation of the principle of academic freedom upon which scholarly engagement and university life are premised.

The Conference brings together leading scholars in the fields of political theory, history, cultural studies, and law, among others, whose scholarship has shaped the study of Israel-Palestine. The notion that such an academic event should be cancelled on the ostensible grounds of “health and safety” appears like a fig leaf for what is actually an attempt to stifle debate and critical discussion of the current state of Israel and the legality of its occupation. As recently set out in an open letter by the Conference’s organisers, the management decision ignores the sustained and successful effort by the organisers to assure themselves that the conference could proceed safely, thus painting as exceptional an event which, while perceived by some as controversial, is well within the bounds of critical academic dialogue. Many university events will potentially draw vocal dissent, and even interference, but this cannot reasonably be a criterion to close academic space for debate. The management refusal to engage the efforts made by the organisers to deal with potential disruption lends force to our impression that the actual reason for withdrawing permission is to avoid the challenges that are inherent in preserving a university environment that privileges critical inquiry and open debate over censorship.

We therefore ask you urgently to rescind your decision and to work with the conference organisers to ensure that the event goes ahead in a timely and safe manner.