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.

Yours sincerely,

Brenna Bhandar, Senior Lecturer, SOAS School of Law
Alberto Toscano, Reader in Critical Theory, Goldsmiths, Department of Sociology
Nadje Al-Ali, Professor of Gender Studies, SOAS
Laleh Khalili, Professor Middle East Politics, SOAS
Nimer Sultany, Lecturer, SOAS School of Law
Les Back, Professor of Sociology, Goldsmiths
Sanjay Seth, Professor of Politics, Goldsmiths
Mariam Motamedi-Fraser, Reader, Goldsmiths, Department of Sociology
Marsha Rosengarten, Professor of Sociology, Goldsmiths
Elena Loizidou, Reader in Political Theory, Birkbeck School of Law
Peter Hallward, Professor of Modern European Philosophy, Kingston University
Lynn Welchman, Professor of Law, SOAS
Denise Ferreira da Silva, Professor of Ethics, Queen Mary School of Business & Management
Adam Hanieh, Senior Lecturer, SOAS Department of Development Studies
Rafeef Ziadah, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of London, SOAS

2. David Gurnham, Director of Research for the University of Southampton School of Law

Dear Vice Chancellor,

I write as the Director of Research for the University of Southampton School of Law in response to the sad news that you have decided to cancel next month's conference on Israel and international law on grounds of 'health and safety'. It seems to me outrageous that 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. I understand that the police had reported that they would be perfectly able and willing to deal with any security concerns at the event: this ought to be good enough.

Cancelling the event in this way makes the University look weak, spineless and reactionary. I am proud to be a member of academic staff here, but your decision to withdraw support for a conference in this manner makes me, and I'm sure very many others like me, seriously question the University's commitment to open and free debate.

I would strongly urge you to reconsider your decision.


David Gurnham
Associate Professor of Law
Director of Research
School of Law
University of Southampton

3. Professor Taylor Carman, Columbia University, USA

Dear Vice Chancellor Nutbeam & Dep Vice Chancellory Wheeler,

I'm writing to express my extreme disappointment and disapproval of your cancellation of the conference on International Law & the State of Israel. I gather the decision to cancel the event was driven by "health and safety considerations," i.e. that those protesting the event convinced you that its going forward would pose risks to the safety of the participation, students and staff.

It seems to me this implies either (1) that those protesting the conference have effectively suppressed it by threats (stated or implied) of violence, or (2) that the University is misrepresenting its real motives in canceling the event. Can you clarify which it is?

In either case, the decision to cancel the conference under such ideological pressure is a betrayal of the ideals of academic freedom and open debate in a democratic society. You must redress this error by either reinstating the conference or rescheduling it immediately.


Taylor Carman
Professor of Philosophy
Barnard College
Columbia University
New York, NY 10027

4.  James McDougall, Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford

Dear Professor Nutbeam, Dear Professor Wheeler

I understand that the University of Southampton has decided to cancel a forthcoming academic conference that was intended to discuss the state of Israel and international law. Your reasons for doing so are apparently 'health and safety' grounds.

I appreciate that risk assessments are necessary to the functioning of universities as of every other public institution in these litigious times. Doubtless your view is that this is the most responsible course of action to take in the circumstances. But you seem to have forgotten what a University is for, and what, and to whom, your responsibilities really are. When a University finds itself, or rather when its leadership find themselves, unable to provide a free and open forum for bona fide academic discussion, whatever the topic, the University has ceased to fulfil its public function, and its leaders have failed in their duty to their society, to their students, to their faculty, and to themselves.

This decision, however well-intended, constitutes an attack on freedom of speech in our country, and I deplore it. I urge you to reconsider, and to assume your real responsibilities.


James McDougall
Associate Professor of modern history, Fellow of Trinity College, Oxford

5. Dr. Sujala Singh, School of Humanities, University of Southampton

Dear Professor Nutbeam,

I am writing because I am concerned with the recent announcement that the University is considering cancelling the conference on Israel and international law on health and safety grounds.  My primary concerns are academic and educational.  A key strength of the Discipline of English where I belong is the range and diversity of courses we offer.  Students welcome and gain a great understanding of different literatures and cultures:  a key means of enabling this is by educating them to feel bold enough to question, challenge and critique beyond their comfort zones.  Courses on colonial, postcolonial and Middle Eastern Literatures add great value to the curriculum and are appreciated by students who participate enthusiastically and get engaged with thinking about different genres, modes of writing and cultural and global articulations.  The politics of various institutions/ideologies/nations are examined closely, and yes, debated critically.  I am sure you are well aware of the research reasons why this is an important conference including the freedom of academic speech/expression/thinking rationale; hence my focus in this letter is on the teaching end of things.

As an aside:  Elias Khoury who is scheduled to give a keynote address is a very well-known literary figure and his work is taught in our course on "Literature and Visual Culture From the Middle East" which I co-teach with colleagues.  Another speaker, Ilan Pappe delivered a keynote address in a conference on "The Sacred and Secular" hosted by English which was well-attended and generated some very stimulating discussion.  There were no health and safety issues for either of the above.  I understand that the conference is a more sustained business, but the question surely is that we as an institution must hold on to the right to protest, care and debate.  And let the police do their job.

With best wishes,

Dr. Sujala Singh
English, School of Humanities

6. Robert Wintemute, Professor of Human Rights Law, King's College London

Dear Vice-Chancellor Nutbeam,

I'm shocked by the University of Southampton's decision to cancel the conference on Israel-Palestine.  It reminds me of Alekseyev v. Russia (European Court of Human Rights, 21 Oct 2010, refusal to permit LGBT Pride events in Moscow).

57.  ... the events which the applicant had sought to hold had carried an obvious risk of confrontation between the participants and their opponents. [The Russian Government] claimed to have received numerous public petitions from various political, religious, governmental and non-governmental organisations calling for the ban, some of which included threats of violence should the events go ahead. They were therefore concerned about the safety of the participants and the difficulties in maintaining public order during the events.

The ECtHR rejected the "safety/security" justification and found a violation of Article 11 EConHR on freedom of assembly.

​77.  In the light of the above findings, the Court concludes that the Government failed to carry out an adequate assessment of the risk to the safety of the participants in the events and to public order. It reiterates that if every probability of tension and heated exchange between opposing groups during a demonstration were to warrant its prohibition, society would be faced with being deprived of the opportunity of hearing differing views on any question which offends the sensitivity of the majority opinion (see Stankov and the United Macedonian Organisation Ilinden, cited above, § 107). In the present case, the Court cannot accept the Government's assertion that the threat was so great as to require such a drastic measure as banning the event altogether, let alone doing so repeatedly over a period of three years. ...

See also:

Stankov [v. Bulgaria, 2 Oct. 2001], para. 86: 
86.  Freedom of expression ... is applicable not only to “information” or “ideas” that are favourably received or regarded as inoffensive or as a matter of indifference, but also to those that offend, shock or disturb. Such are the demands of pluralism, tolerance and broadmindedness without which there is no “democratic society” ...
Likewise, freedom of assembly as enshrined in Article 11 of the Convention protects a demonstration that may annoy or give offence to persons opposed to the ideas or claims that it is seeking to promote ...

Stankov, para. 107:  The national authorities must display particular vigilance to ensure that national public opinion is not protected at the expense of the assertion of minority views, no matter how unpopular they may be.​​

I urge you to reverse the decision and allow the conference to go ahead at the University of Southampton as planned, for the sake of freedom of expression and your university's reputation.

Yours sincerely,

Prof. Robert Wintemute (Professor of Human Rights Law)
School of Law, King's College London, Strand

7. Academics for Palestine, Ireland

According to a statement released by conference organisers on 31 March, the University of Southampton is withdrawing its consent to host the forthcoming conference ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’, due to take place on 17-19 April 2015, citing as reasons concerns about ‘health and safety’.

Academics for Palestine, a group of Irish academics – from both the Republic of Ireland and the North of Ireland – set up to create awareness and build the academic boycott of Israel campaign in Ireland, urges the University of Southampton to allow the conference to proceed as planned.

We believe there is ample time for any concerns regarding the safety and security of university staff, students, and conference participants to be adequately addressed. We also believe that the University of Southampton, which for several weeks has resisted pressure from the Zionist lobby citing its full commitment to academic freedom, must now fulfil its legal obligations to protect free speech and academic discussion, values to which the conference organisers and all conference participants are committed.

To cancel the conference on the grounds of concerns about ‘health and safety’ shows weakness in the face of external pressure and bullying, and calls into question the University of Southampton's genuine commitment not only to academia and the professional activities of its own scholars, but also to the precious tradition of free speech itself.

We join thousands of academics throughout the world who have signed a petition in calling upon the University of Southampton to reverse its decision and allow the conference to go ahead as planned.

Yours sincerely,

Jim Roche, Dublin Institute of Technology, Chair
Dr David Landy, Trinity College Dublin, Secretary
Dr Ronit Lentin, Trinity College Dublin, PRO
Academics for Palestine

8. Dr Ranka Primorac, University of Southampton

Dear colleagues

I am deeply concerned about the withdrawal of permission for next month's conference on Israel and international law, because I have reason to think it is doing much to harm the University's overseas reputation.

I have just returned from participating in an international conference in Nairobi, Kenya, organised by the British Academy-funded British Institute in East Africa. The conference discussed a fraught subject - the 1950s Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya - with sensitivity and care. Since my return, I have received astonished emails from fellow participants, wondering at the soundness of the intellectual and ethical principles undergirding the Southampton event cancellation.

Freedom of speech has been challenged on European soil lately. The rest of the world is watching. We want to show our students and our international colleagues that we understand what is at stake.

Yours sincerely,

Ranka Primorac |English | Humanities | University of Southampton

9. Dr. A.M. Viens, Southampton Law School, University of Southampton

Dear Professors Nutbeam and Wheeler,

I was very disappointed to hear that the University has withdrawn its support for the International Law and the State of Israel Conference.

Universities are one of the last places where challenging questions on controversial topics can be raised, debated and explored.  Without staunch protection of academic freedom, our universities will no longer be able to play their vital role in democratic societies of stimulating debate and questioning beliefs.  Opposition to this event appears predicated on a misunderstanding of how academics seek to interrogate received wisdom and subject our beliefs to criticism to see how well they stand up.  Asking whether or not something is legitimate is a perfectly standard and useful way to approach normative questions, such as those raised in law.

Of course, we all want academic events at the University to be safe for their participants and those who will also be on campus.  The information from the police, however, appears to indicate that they are perfectly able to adequately deal with these risks if the University would ask them to do so.  Withdrawing support for the conference on health and safety grounds for these reasons at this stage will give the impression that the University was merely looking for a post hoc rationalisation for its decision.

I would respectfully and strongly encourage you to reconsider your decision.  Such a research-intensive institution should take a strong stance of academic freedom and protecting its researchers’ rights to hold academic events that are central to advancing knowledge and debate.

Best wishes,

Dr. A.M. Viens
Associate Professor in Law
Director (Interim), Centre for Health Ethics and Law (HEAL)
Southampton Law School

University of Southampton

10. Claire Lougarre, Lecturer in Law, Southampton Law School, University of Southampton

My support is based on the fundamental aspect that academic freedom plays in research excellence (and of course beyond, in democratic societies). As a member of the Russell Group, the University of Southampton sets an example of what compelling and high quality research is in the UK.

Therefore, giving in to external pressures requesting that the conference is cancelled sends a very strong signal. A signal that our ability as academics to discuss and research freely stops: 1) when a sensitive topic is at stake; and 2) when we are being requested to do so. The conference aims to explore a topic, not to promote hate speech. It thus encapsulates academic freedom and freedom of expression.

I understand there have also been requests for the 'other side' to be represented in order for the debate to be 'fairer'. I am finding these requests disturbing. Who is the other side?

If this involves inviting members of the public, then it is not an academic conference anymore. Public engagement is essential in research, but this is not the framework in which this event was created.

If this involves inviting researchers, does that mean that we systematically need to invite academics in disagreement with our research every time we organise a conference? If that is the case, I can hardly see how any area of research can ever blossom if presenters are constantly interrupted on the very premises of their research. However, if the requirement to invite academics in disagreement with our research only applies in the instance our research concerns a 'sensitive topic', then research becomes subject to politics.

Academic freedom is at the core of research excellence and at the core of everyone's right to education. I thus express my support to the organisers of the conference on International Law and the State of Israel by asking that the University of Southampton reverses its decision.

Claire Lougarre
Lecturer in Law
Southampton Law School
University of Southampton

11. Dr Stephanie Jones, Associate Professor in English, University of Southampton

Dear Vice Chancellor and Pro-Vice Chancellor,

I was distressed  and surprised to receive the message last night that the University has deemed itself not to have the practical capacity to protect free speech.

The conference on “International Law and The State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” pursues the University's key mission to support "independence of thought, and the freedom to challenge existing knowledge and beliefs through critical research and scholarship".

This mission must entail a commitment to ensuring the University as a space of open debate.  I urge the University to re-consider the decision to cancel the conference.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Stephanie Jones
Associate Professor in English
Faculty of Humanities

University of Southampton