Queen’s University in Belfast has cancelled a symposium on Charlie Hebdo and free speech because of the security risk and concern for the university’s reputation.
One of the main topics of discussion, which was titled “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo”, was to be self-censorship after the attacks on the French magazine in January.
The paradox of censoring an event where self-censorship was to be one of the main topics of discussion was apparently lost on the university’s vice chancellor Patrick Johnston but not on two of the proposed guest speakers. On Wednesday morning Professor Max Silverman from Leeds University, speaking to BBC Radio Ulster, called the decision a “bitter irony”.
He told the Good Morning Ulster programme: “It is deeply ironic that what was going on in Paris this year to do largely with freedom of speech is actually being replicated by the university itself. If you cannot discuss these sensitive issues in a university then I don’t know where you can discuss them. I do fear for what we value most in our democracies.”
He went on to say that the now cancelled conference was getting much more publicity than it would have done but for “all the wrong reasons”.
Also due to speak at the conference was Dr. Bryan Klug from the University of Oxford who was left “baffled and dismayed” by the university’s decision. Calling the organisation of the event an “admirable initiative” Dr. Klug said he couldn’t understand why the university had “pulled the rug out from under their feet.”
“We really don’t know what the vice chancellor was worried about. We haven’t been told what that security risk consists of. I think we are all owed an explanation.”
He went on to say that it was not the role of universities to prevent freedom of speech but rather that it was “the responsibility of academia to respond to complex international conflicts in a constructive analytical way.”
The university issued a statement on Wednesday afternoon saying:
“As part of managing the health and safety of the institution, it is a requirement for all major events to have a full risk assessment completed prior to them going ahead on the campus.
“Unfortunately the proposed symposium organised by the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities did not have a completed risk assessment and, as a result, the institute has cancelled the event.
“This issue is not related to academic freedom and Queen’s continues to uphold the importance of academic freedom in a world-class institution and has demonstrated this over many years.”
The Ulster Unionist Leader and former journalist, Mike Nesbitt, has publically called on the university to reconsider its position. In response to the university’s statement Mr. Nesbitt said:
“We are told the reason for cancellation is procedural, in that appropriate risk assessments have not been completed.
“If that is the case, I call on Queen’s to complete those assessments as a matter of urgency, and reinstate the event on the planned date, or as soon thereafter as possible.
“Queen’s has hosted a serving President of the United States in the past. I refuse to accept they cannot manage security protocols.”
He went on to say that if the university did not reverse the decision it was his understanding that some of the speakers booked for the event would come anyway and that he would “do what he could in conjunction with free speech groups to make that happen.”