Southampton University bans “controversial” Israel conference again

Israeli anti-Zionist historian Ilan Pappe was to speak at the conference. (Meraj Chhaya/Flickr)

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.

Banned

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.”

“Attacks”

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.

Free speech?

The case should be seen as an important test for the robustness of free speech protections in the United Kingdom.

In 2014, New York’s Brooklyn College attempted to impose a “security fee” of $400 on a student group that hosted a book talk by The Electronic Intifada’s Ali Abunimah.

After intervention by lawyers from Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, the college backed down.

“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.

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Comments

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I was very disappointed when this conference was cancelled last year, but I understood it was the matter of the prohibitive costs of policing the event that were the major limiting factor this year, rather than the University 'banning' it. I also thought the sponsors were taking legal action to try and pass the responsibility for those costs to the University. This doesn't amount to banning the conference as stated in the headline to the article.

Also I'm not sure the mention of 'attacks' is referring to 'terrorist attacks', a bit of poetic licence being engaged there. I would suggest they are implying that protests may lead to violence and Hampshire Police are not to keen on supplying the manpower to Police it for free.

Finally, the UK Special Branch was disbanded some years ago and joined with the Anti Terrorist Branch to become The Counter Terrorism Command, SO15, so whoever was or wasn't consulted it definitely wasn't SB.

Generally enjoy the coverage on EI, but sometimes (IMHO!) facts are a little distorted!

Ali Abunimah's picture

Thanks for your comment. EI is very attentive to getting the facts right. You might not be aware that many UK police forces still maintain units called Special Branch, including Hampshire Constabulary.

The issue of whether charging tens of thousands of pounds for security is reasonable and rational or a pretext to burden free speech is precisely what is at issue. In the US, the Supreme Court has ruled that arbitrary charges or conditions cannot be used to unconstitutionally burden the exercise of free speech. While the principles are exactly the same, as the article notes, a key difference is the UK doesn’t have a First Amendment. That means for people in the UK, free speech is subject to arbitrary decisions made by petty administrators behind closed door.

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Thanks, being London based I forgot about individual county Special Branch departments!
I agree, but what legal decisions are based on is not really relevant to the UK. My point was that the headline states that Southampton University are banning the conference, which isn't true. The UK Police have always had the option of imposing fees for additional requests for manpower, sports events being one of the most common examples. This is what has happened here, Hampshire Police are exercising that option by all accounts.
I believe the conference should go ahead for the same reasons as you, we disagree on the 'arbitrary decisions made behind closed doors' issue. What happens in the US and decisions of the Supreme Court are of no relevance to the UK.

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Oh come on Iffy, you know very well that it is Israeli pressure that has caused this ban, let's call a spade a spade.

Asa Winstanley's picture

If the reference to “attacks” being terror attacks is poetic licence, it is the poetic licence of Southampton University, not mine.

If you read my court report from last year you can see that the spectre of Paris-style attacks on either the conference or protesters at the conference was a very explicit part of their legal defence for cancelling the conference.

The organizers argument is that the imposition of £24,000 in “security” costs (which they argue is in any event an exaggerated costing) is a ban in effect, since they don’t have that money. That seems convincing to me, and the university has provided no explanation as to why it should not bear this cost, in line with their own Codes of Practice.

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When a country determines for itself that it is beyond criticism you must know there is a lot of legitimate criticism that they live in fear of. That is the state of affairs now with Israel.

Asa Winstanley

Asa Winstanley's picture

Asa Winstanley is an investigative journalist who lives in London. He is an associate editor with The Electronic Intifada. He first visited Palestine in 2004.