This piece by Asa Winstanley, originally published on Electronic Intifada, explains how Southampton University came to cancel an academic conference about Israel’s legal status following a campaign of vilification by pro-Israel lobbyists, including members of the Conservative-led UK government.
Letters from playwright Caryl Churchill and academics Hilary and Steven Rose contested the cancellation in the Guardian newspaper.
UK High Court backs shutdown of Israel conference
The High Court in London on Tuesday upheld the decision of the University of Southampton to cancel at the last minute an academic conference related to Israel, after speakers were deemed “controversial” by critics.
Israel lobby organizations (including the Zionist Federation and the Board of Deputies of British Jews) had called for the conference to be canceled because critics of Israel like Ilan Pappe and Nur Masalha were due to present papers.
But those opposed to the conference (including Conservative former education minister Michael Gove and current communities minister Eric Pickles) ignored the fact that supporters of Israel were also due to speak at the conference. These included Alan Johnson of the Britain Israel Communications and Research Centre and the ultra-right-wing Zionist historian Geoffrey Alderman.
Alderman last week used his regular platform in The Jewish Chronicle to argue that the Israel lobby had made a “massive own-goal” in getting the conference canceled since it would just make the pro-Israel argument look weak and unable to withstand scrutiny.
The conference, “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism,” scheduled for this weekend (17-19 April), had been more than a year in the planning.
Organizers on Tuesday challenged the university’s decision-making process, lodging a judicial review earlier this month after the university confirmed on 2 April it had canceled the event.
A lawyer for the university argued that the event had not been canceled or banned, but that the decision was a “postponement.” The university has been offering to commission an “independent” report which will look into the possibility of holding the conference at a later date.
High Court Judge Alice Robinson ruled that the organizers’ academic freedom had not been impinged upon because participants could express their positions at another conference – but not at this particular conference, at this particular time.
Organizers expressed disappointment with the result and said they would be making comment in due course.
Mark McDonald, a public interest lawyer from the chambers of Michael Mansfield QC, argued the case on behalf of conference organizers along with co-counsel Shivani Jegarajah. Both barristers, along with their instructing solicitor, were acting pro bono.
McDonald and Jegarajah argued that the case was fundamentally one of the denial of freedom of speech.
Risk of protest
The university had claimed, McDonald argued, that protests would be held against the conference. A written police event assessment stated that these would be led by Sussex Friends of Israel, which was expected to mobilize upwards of 300 protesters against the event.
While the police assessment stated that Sussex Friends of Israel was a peaceful group, it also said that it works with the English Defence League, a violent anti-Muslim street gang which also expresses support for Israel.
But, McDonald argued, the police had advised the university that any risk to safety could be easily managed by the police. EDL supporters who could turn up were unlikely to number more than five or six, according to the police assessment.
The document stated that “Hampshire Constabulary remains confident that it can provide the necessary support to Southampton University, if requested, to assist with the mitigation of risk from any protest.”
University counsel also raised the existence of a second police document, which it said it could not release: a weekly round-up of intelligence from the National Domestic Extremism Unit of the Metropolitan Police. The defense claimed this document had been shown to organizers, but they refuted this – and their counsel asked for the document to be disclosed. The judge refused to order the disclosure.
Police had wanted to meet with organizers to “dispel myths, rumours and speculation” about the event, and organizers agreed to meet. But this meeting never transpired.
In his arguments, McDonald added that Gary Jackson, the university’s head of security, said that he had met with Special Branch and they discussed the possibility of an armed response unit. This claim was in contrast to the police’s risk assessment, which stated that there was no plan to have a police presence within university buildings.
Special Branch is a police unit ostensibly focused on combating “terrorism” and “extremism” which in fact has a history of targeting protest groups.
The logic seemed to be, the judge interjected, that Jewish groups protesting the event could become a terrorist target. But organizers had argued that many conference participants were Jews themselves. McDonald and Jegarajah said the Sussex Friends of Israel were not in fact a Jewish group, but largely consisted of Christian Zionists.
McDonald argued that the police assessment showed no intelligence of specific terrorist threats. “There has to be something concrete and it is not there,” he said.
“Severe” terror threat
A lawyer acting for the defense of the university’s decision, for his part, mainly argued that while the police assessment was relevant in informing an expert opinion on the event, the decision whether to hold the event or not was rightly one only the university could make.
It was not a freedom of speech case, he argued, since the applicants could exercise their academic freedom elsewhere. It is a matter of proportionate risk to the safety of university staff and students, he claimed.
In her ruling, the judge accepted almost all of the defense’s case.
She inserted into her ruling the text of the 31 March letter from the university’s chief operating officer to the organizers explaining that permission to hold the conference at the university had been “withdrawn.” This was due to “risks to safety and public order” at the conference due to protests.
She said that recent terror attacks in Paris against Jews and the official (since August 2014) UK terrorism level designation of “severe” was “plainly relevant” to the university’s decision, but “not determinative.” The university’s decision was made only on “security concerns.”
Permission to apply for Judicial Review was therefore refused. The defendant then lodged a claim “in the region” of £10,000 ($14,777) for legal costs. This was refused, but the judge granted a smaller figure expected to amount to around £2,000 ($2,955).
McDonald said on Tuesday evening that there will be an appeal on the decision in principle. If necessary, it will be taken as far as the European Court of Human Rights.
Update, 15 April:
In a statement, organizers said they were “contemplating the best way of pursuing an appeal against this decision.” They also said they had exhausted all possible alternate venues in Southampton, so with great regret the conference would have to be postponed. “Several venues confirmed our booking initially as an alternative, and then canceled,” they said.
The statement concluded:
We will meet in the conference very soon. The pursuit of justice and peace in Palestine continues, and we must keep solidarity in the face of this disgraceful failure on the part of Southampton University. We must continue to protest publicly against the university decision, and use the moral strength of our cause to ensure freedom of speech and academic debate – for our own sakes as well as for others. We are confident that in time, we will, indeed, prevail.