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Cambridge Uni accused of stifling free speech after threatening to shut Palestine event

24th Nov 2017

Elham Asaad Buaras

Over 350 people, senior academics from leading UK universities, have signed an open letter protesting “an intolerable violation of academic freedom” after Cambridge University officials threatened to shut down a Palestine Society event on November 8.

Lecturers at Cambridge, Warwick, the London School of Economics and SOAS have all added their names to the letter which received hundreds of signatures from staff and students.

University officials contacted the student-run Cambridge University Palestine Society (PalSoc) just hours before their talk was due to take place, demanding their Director of Communications, Paul Mylrea, be installed as the panel’s chair “to ensure open, robust and lawful debate”.

Organisers agreed to allow Mylrea to chair – replacing SOAS Palestinian academic Ruba Salih – after being told the event would be forcibly cancelled if they failed to comply.

The event, titled ‘BDS and the globalised struggle for Palestinian rights’, was set to feature a panel of pro-Palestinian speakers, including Omar Barghouti and former NUS president Malia Bouattia.

Barghouti, the founder of the Boycott, Sanctions and Divestment (BDS) movement, leads the campaign for international economic and political sanctions to be placed on Israel over its violation of international law and treatment of the Palestinians.

The open letter seen by The Muslim News reads: “We condemn in the strongest possible terms the attempt by university authorities to interfere in a panel event…and believe such efforts constitute an intolerable violation of academic freedom…

“It is disturbing that [they] consider such censorship appropriate for an event designed to raise awareness of the human rights of Palestinians and indigenous peoples globally.

“It is deeply concerning that they have attempted to suppress this event through aggressive institutional intervention.

“In doing so, the university risks being seen to side with those who hope to silence the voices of the marginalised, and raises questions about the extent of its commitment to free speech.”

PalSoc described the University intervention as “heavy-handed” and authoritarian”. Adding, “Their replacement of a Palestinian woman with a white male member of university management, with no substantiation of their claim that the former was incapable of neutrality other than racialised insinuation, sends deeply disturbing signals about the prevalence of institutionalized discrimination at Cambridge.”

“Similar events at LSE … raise the same concerns,” added the Spokesperson.

Academic signatories include Dr Priyamvada Gopal and Dr Anne Alexander, both of Cambridge, Jamie Woodcock, a fellow at LSE, and Eleanor Tiplady Higgs, a senior fellow at SOAS.

The intervention comes not long after Cambridge banned its Arabic students from travelling to the Palestinian territories, following a spate of interrogations and deportations by Israeli security.

A spokesman for the University of Cambridge told The Muslim News: “The University is fully committed to freedom of speech and expression. We understand that certain events and issues evoke strong feelings among people and communities. But we believe it is important that staff, students and visitors to the University can participate fully in legitimate debate, partly so that they are able to question and test controversial ideas.

“We have no reason to believe that these events are in any way unlawful. Events will be well-chaired in order to ensure open, robust and lawful debate. In this instance, following calls from the organisers for extra safety measures, a neutral chair was provided to ensure that all sides were represented in what is an important and often emotionally charged debate.”

However, University officials failed to answer if there is a precedent to their demands of installing their own panellists to student-run events.

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