On Behalf of Free Speech, Even When it Hurts

A distinguished academic who has vigorously opposed academic boycotts of Israel and a veteran senior administrator in American Jewish organisational life have protested the decision by the University of Southampton to cancel a planned academic conference challenging the legitimacy of the state of Israel under international law.  They have sent a letter in this regard to the Vice Chancellor of the University and published the letter in Inside Higher Education.  The link to the letter may be found at http://jkrfoundation.org/british-university-shouldnt-cancel-anti-israel-conference/.  I have also reproduced the letter below.


Dear Vice Chancellor Nutbeam,

We write as two North Americans who oppose academic boycotts and support academic freedom. While we find the upcoming conference on International Law and the State of Israel disturbing (it questions the right of Israel to exist, it includes panelists who have made gross antisemitic statements, etc.), we are shocked by the report that the university might cancel the conference.

Academic freedom requires that scholarly meetings, even ones that can rightly be criticized for promoting bigotry, are permitted to be held. The correct answer to the problems this conference poses is for others to use their own academic freedom to document what is wrong when, as here, history and principles are twisted to promote a bigoted political agenda. Especially given the University’s track record of supporting important and valued teaching and research in Jewish studies, it is well poised to answer speech with speech, rather than with suppression.

Canceling the conference because of security concerns is called, in the American context, a “heckler’s veto.” We ask Southampton not to eviscerate the right its faculty and students have to hear what the organizers of this conference present, even if what is presented is troubling and bigoted.

Campus security can surely handle a demonstration against the conference. Indeed people participating in such a protest would be exercising their own academic freedom so long as the event was allowed to continue.

We also worry about the precedent Southampton would set by canceling. Whether pro-Israel or anti-Israel (or pro-immigrant or anti-immigrant, or pro-gay rights or anti-gay rights, etc), it would effectively be saying that forces inside and outside the academic community who don’t like a particular point of view can shut down speech by threats. How can learning take place in such an environment? Would Southampton only then have conferences and speakers on “safe” topics? How can students learn to think when difficult issues and hot topics are no longer appropriate for campus programming?

We call on the university to allow this conference to take place, on campus, with adequate security. And we call on you and your colleagues to use your own academic freedom to speak out about both the bigotry that will likely be evidenced at the conference, and the danger to the academic enterprise when speech, even troubling and bigoted speech, is suppressed.

Cary Nelson, co-chair, Alliance for Academic Freedom
Kenneth Stern, executive director, Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation, executive committee, Alliance for Academic Freedom