The Telegraph reports:
A leading university has been accused of “selling out” academic freedom of speech by scrapping a talk on links between the Nazis and Islamic anti-semitism after allegedly receiving emails from Muslims protesting about the event.
Matthias Küntzel, a German author and political scientist who specialises in the threat of Islamic fundamentalism, was told yesterday by the University of Leeds that a talk scheduled for yesterday evening, and a two-day workshop, on Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Anti-semitism in the Middle East, had been cancelled because of security fears.
In a statement yesterday, two academics in the Leeds German department, which had organised the event, claimed the university had bowed “to Muslim protests”. Dr Küntzel said he had given similar addresses around the world and there had been no problems.
He added: “I was told it was for security reasons – that they cannot shelter my person. But I don’t feel in any way threatened.
”I know this is sometimes a controversial topic but I am accustomed to that and I have the ability to calm people down. It’s not a problem for me at all.
“My impression was that they wanted to avoid the issue in order to keep the situation calm. My feeling is that this is a kind of censorship.”
He has given the talk at Yale and in universities in Jerusalem and Vienna.
Dr Küntzel said the contents of emails described to him did not overtly threaten violence but “they were very, very strongly worded”.
He added: ”It’s stupid, because I also talk about Christian anti-semitism.”
The talk was to have been part of a two day workshop put on by Leeds University School of Modern Languages. There seems to be a dispute over why the talk was cancelled. Leeds University is reported to have said:
“The decision to cancel the meeting has nothing to do with academic freedom, freedom of speech, anti-semitism or Islamophobia and those claiming that is the case are making mischief.
”Nor are we bowing to threats or protests from interest groups. The meeting has been cancelled on safety grounds alone and because – contrary to our rules – no assessment of risk to people or property has been carried out, no stewarding arrangements are in place and we were not given sufficient notice to ensure safety and public order.”
The Times provides additional background:
One, apparently written by a student, said: “As a Muslim and an Arab this has come to me as a great shock. The only intention that you have for doing this is to increase hatred as I clearly regard it as an open racist attack.”
Ahmed Sawalem, president of the university’s student Islamic Society, confirmed that he had contacted the office of Professor Michael Arthur, the Vice-Chancellor, to register an official complaint.
“The title of the talk is provocative and I have searched the internet to read his writings and they are not very pleasant,” Mr Sawalem said. “We are not opposed to freedom of expression. We just sent a complaint, we did not ask for the talk to be cancelled.”
The university authorities contacted the German department on Tuesday and asked for a change in the title. The department agreed to relabel the talk as “The Nazi Legacy: the export of antiSemitism to the Middle East”.
That seems odd to me. When I was an academic, there was generally speaking no need to carry out risk assessments, or to put stewarding arrangements in place, before a seminar could take place.
Things have evidently changed in British universities.
The relevant law is section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986.
One of the requirements of the Education (No. 2) Act is that a University must promulgate a Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. Here is Leeds’. They key paragraphs are as follows:
6. This code of practice applies to any meeting or proposed meeting on University premises for which the subject matter or the speaker could be deemed ‘controversial’. In this context, a ‘controversial’ meeting means one at which it might not be possible for a speaker to enter or leave the building safely or to deliver properly his or her speech (or both), or one which, by virtue of its subject matter, might occasion a disturbance. Anyone in any doubt about whether a particular meeting shall be categorised as ‘controversial’ must, as far in advance of the meeting as possible, consult either the appropriate officer of the Union (if the meeting is to be held in the Union Building) or (if the meeting is to be held elsewhere on University premises) the Secretary. It is open to the Secretary to declare that any particular meeting comes within the provisions of this code, whether or not the organisers of the meeting in question themselves have judged it to be controversial.
9. Anyone booking a room or rooms for a meeting in University premises the day-to-day use of which is controlled by the Secretary’s Office shall be required, at the time of making the booking, to signify that he or she has received a copy of, and agrees to comply with the provisions of, this code of practice and in particular that he or she will notify the Secretary if there is any reason to consider that the proposed meeting in question might fall within the class of meeting specified in paragraph 6 above.
10. In the case of rooms in University premises the day-to-day use of which is not controlled through the Secretary’s Office (or through the Union), it is the responsibility of the head of the administrative unit which has day-to-day control over the use of the room or rooms concerned to ensure that the Secretary is notified if there is any reason to consider that the proposed meeting in question might fall within the class of meeting specified in paragraph 6 above. (In the case of a hall of residence, the ‘head of the administrative unit’ shall be as designated from time to time by the Secretary.)
If a meeting falls within “paragraph 6”, then various consequences follow, including this:
11.3 The Appointed Officer shall either grant or withhold permission for the use of University (including, as appropriate, Union) premises for the meeting proposed. In either case, permission may be withheld only:
(a) if the Appointed Officer receives less than forty-eight hours notice of the organisational arrangements proposed, including in particular the name of the principal speaker or speakers, the name of the Chairperson, the subject of the address or addresses and the precise timings of the arrival and departure of the speaker or speakers…
The key question here will be whether there was any reason to consider that the proposed meeting would be “controversial”. If so, what were the grounds for making that assessment? Was that assessment properly made?
A series of questions also arise in relation to the operation of the Code of Practice itself. In particular, when could the University have first concluded that the meeting was “paragraph 6 controversial”? If the assessment of controversiality was made in response to emails, when were they received? Should the assessment of “controversiality” have been made earlier: either by the organisers of the seminar or by the University itself?
In effect, did the University cancel the meeting because it failed to classify the meeting as “controversial” as early as it could have? Was the Code of Practice used, in this instance, to prevent freedom of expression? Alternatively, if the meeting only became “controversial” because of emailed objections, received at the 11th hour, did the Code of Practice operate to give the objectors an effective veto?
A question also arises in relation to the extent that a University may lawfully take into account the risk of public disorder. The leading case on the issue is here. I do not think that it would be lawful, under s. 43, for the procedures to be operated in a manner which allowed a meeting to be cancelled merely because a remote risk to public disorder are judged to arise.
These are all questions which I think should fairly be asked. They might be relevant, for example, were an application for judicial review of the University’s decision to cancel the talk to take place.
The paper which would have been delivered is here.
(Via Will at the Popinjays)