Southampton University has for the second year running banned an academic conference expected to include critical views of Israel, organizers say.
In a letter to the university’s lawyers seen by The Electronic Intifada, lawyers acting for Southampton academics Suleiman Sharkh and Oren Ben-Dor told the university of their intent to challenge the latest ban in court.
The university’s decision to cancel the 2015 conference, titled “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” will come to court in a judicial review next month.
Mark McDonald, a lawyer acting pro bono for the organizers, told The Electronic Intifada that they hope the second case will be folded into the original review in a 6 April hearing.
Organizers have set up a crowdfunding campaign to help with legal costs. “We have now relaunched the conference, with all speakers on board, for 7-9 April 2017,” they state, “but it is crucial we win this legal case in order to uphold freedom of speech on campuses.”
The planned conference had come under intense criticism by pro-Israel campaigners, and Sussex Friends of Israel, a small hardcore group of activists, had said it would protest the event.
Government ministers joined in the chorus of criticism and behind closed doors the Israel lobby leaned on the university to cancel.
The cancellation was justified by the university because of what it claimed was a “risk” to participants and protesters. But the university’s critics accused administrators of bowing to Israel lobby pressure.
“You seem to have allowed the bullying and threats of the Israeli lobby to prevent the perfectly lawful and legitimate exercise of free speech and academic debate,” Professor David Gurham, director of research for the University of Southampton School of Law, wrote in a letter to the university’s vice chancellor at the time.
Last year, the university’s lawyers argued in court that the event had not been banned but merely subject to “postponement.”
So the organizers again applied to hold the conference in April 2016. The letter seen by The Electronic Intifada, written by Public Interest Lawyers, says that on 1 February 2016, the university imposed onerous conditions, including almost £24,000 ($34,000) in security costs.
McDonald said this amounted to the conference being in effect “banned” since the organizers could not afford such costs.
The letter states that the university’s latest ban “has breached academic freedom” and its own codes of practice.
According to the letter, the code of practice stipulates that the university should cover such security costs in cases where “the right to freedom of speech is being inhibited by lack of funds.”
Southampton University told The Electronic Intifada that it was “not commenting at this stage – ahead of the hearing in April.”
Last year the university responded to the legal challenge by claiming it had an “excellent track record of upholding free speech.”
Israel lobbyists have openly claimed responsibility for having the original conference canceled.
Speaking to the Jewish Chronicle last year, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews confirmed suspicions that the stated grounds for the university cancellation were a mere pretext: “When we had a meeting with the university vice-chancellor they said they would review it on health and safety terms. The two lines of attack possible were legal and health and safety and they were leaning on that one” (emphasis added).
Although Southampton has carried out a second “risk assessment” around the banned 2016 conference, the document was very similar to the 2015 risk assessment, McDonald said.
The Public Interest Lawyers letter quotes from the new risk assessment. In that passage, the university appears to conflate “protests” with terrorist attacks.
“The event will attract potential protests … the risk assessment considers the risks associated with such protests or attacks,” the document claimed.
The letter argues that this conflation is “wholly irrational.”
In the high court hearing last year, it was heard that Special Branch had also been consulted by the university. Special Branch is a secretive UK police unit known for politically motivated spying on peaceful activist groups.
The case should be seen as an important test for the robustness of free speech protections in the United Kingdom.
“The [US] Supreme Court has made it clear that public universities may not burden speech deemed ‘controversial’ – to do so amounts to an unconstitutional ‘heckler’s veto,’” Palestine Legal’s lawyers argued.
The First Amendment protection for free speech invoked in that intervention does of course not exist in the Southampton case where UK law applies.
The United Kingdom has no written constitution.