On March 14, 2007 my lecture at Leeds University on Islamic Antisemitism was abruptly cancelled. On March 31, in response to my official complaint, I received the first written explanation. This letter was signed by the University’s Vice-Chancellor Prof. Arthur and by the University’s Secretary, Mr. Gair.
The Vice-Chancellor and the Secretary stated that they “very much regret the cancellation… and acknowledge that there are lessons to learn for the future, especially about the lines of internal communication within the University. However, we do not consider, even with the benefit of hindsight, that there was in the circumstances any alternative to cancelling your public lecture: by the time the University authorities got to hear of it, there was too little time left in which to arrange the level of stewarding, portering and security that we consider necessary for any controversial event on the Middle East held in the Conference Auditorium.This point is explained in more detail in the enclosed copy of a public statement which we issued at the end of last week.”
The enclosed statement of March 22 (“Freedom of expression and Dr Kuentzel’s lecture”) – see: www.leeds.ac.uk/media/index.htm – confirms for the first time, that “three e-mails from Muslim students” had triggered first a change of the title of my lecture and shortly thereafter the cancellation of the lecture itself.
The four-page long statement insists that “those e-mails… contained no threat – of disruption or otherwise. They are relevant only because they drew the (University) Secretary’s attention to a potentially controversial public lecture of which he was previously unaware.” The statement further adds that “there has been no experience of violence at any such event in Leeds.”
According to the above statement, the title of my lecture (“Hitler’s Legacy: Islamic Antisemitism in the Middle East”) was changed and the wording “Islamic antisemitism” omitted because the Head of the Department of German “concluded that the title of the lecture was potentially inflammatory, especially given the University’s large Muslim population.”
Subsequently, my talk with the changed title “The Nazi -Legacy: Export of Antisemitism into the Middle East” was cancelled, because the University decided, that my lecture “was indeed,controversial’ within the meaning of the University’s protocol” and that in the time available the University could not “reasonably guarantee public safety and public order.”
The statement, in a footnote, refers to the University’s protocoll entiteld “Code of practice on freedom of speech”. What struck me most was the fact, that this code “was replaced from 22 March 2007 by a new protocol on freedom of expression [www.leeds.ac.uk/about/freedom/]”. A new freedom of speech code – just eight days after my lecture was cancelled? This information automatiacally arouse certain hopes that the University’s new approach might have reflected this most recent experience.
Yet the old “Code” – still valid during my scheduled lecture on March 14 – came to me as quite a surprise. In my communication with Leeds University, the meaning of the word “controversial” was always obviously ambiguous. “Kuentzel himself accepts that his area is controversial” says for example the University’s statement of March 22 with a slightly triumphalist tone.
Having been a teacher of political science for over 15 years I am well aware of the fact that most topics in my field are indeed “controversial” but that the pursuit of controversial debate is at the very core of pluralism and democracy. Not so in Leeds. Here, “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.” (Code of practice on freedom of speech, updated 26/09/06, point 6.)
While the definition of the word “controversial” within the old Code was restricted to events with a violent potential the University’s new characterisation of the world,controversial’ is extremly broad: “A,controversial’ meeting in this context (is) being taken as one which might reasonably be construed as having the potential to occasion protest from, or give offence to, any sections of the University or wider community.” (Freedom of Expression, updated 23/03/07, para. 13.)
“Freedom of expression has to be set in the context of the University’s values”, we learn from this most recent statement: “The University expects speakers … to be sensitive to the diversity of its inclusive community, and to show respect to all sections of that community.” (para. 4)
Respect to all sections of a given community? Does this mean, for example, one should show respect to the very section of the Muslim community which perpetrated or gloryfied the 7/7 London suicide attacks? Three out of four of those suicide murderers lived in Beeston, a district of Leeds, and annother suspect was arrested there on March 22, 2007.
According to the University of Leeds’ new regulation (paragraph 8), “the general rule is that the University will intervene to restrict freedom of expression in any particular case only on the grounds indicated in 5-7 above” which means:
Paragraph 5: if “the views or ideas to be put forward (or the manner of their expression) infringe the rights of others, or discriminate against them”
Paragraph 6: if “a proposed event is likely to give rise to an environment in which people will experience – or could reasonably fear – harassment, intimidation, verbal attack or violence, particularly because of their ethnicitiy, race, religion and belief”
Paragraph 7: if adequate arrangements to safeguard the safety of participants is not available.
This language is remarkably vague. Every event in the field of political science could “give rise to an environment in which people could reasonably fear verbal attack.” This is especially true in the field of my particular expertise, Islamic antisemitism. The University of Leeds’ new language seems to grant freedom of expression only as long as nobody will complain about the subject matter itself. It evidently contradicts the comment of Bill Rammell, the Minister for Higher Education who during the parliamentary debate about the cancelled talk at Leeds (20th March, 2007) explained that academics should have “the right to offend”. It plays into the hands of those who instigated the cancellation of my talk in Leeds by complaining that even the title of my talk would constitute “an open racist attack” or, according to a female Muslim student, “threatens my security and well-being on Campus”.
I am deeply dismayed by the fact that this kind of language about “Freedom of Expression” was decided on and implemented by Leeds University a week after the cancellation of my lecture and following the widespread consternation about this decision.
According to the Vice-Chancellor, the University’s Department of German intends to invite me again but I have yet to receive this invitation. I feel obligated to state that I will not be able to accept this invitation if the University of Leeds wants to change the title of my talk again – because “people could reasonably fear verbal attack”. In addition, I do not intend to change the main content of my lecture. It is not a matter of opinion but a matter of fact that the Charter of Hamas – to name just one document – includes blatant antisemitic libel.
After having received a written explanation and an expression of regret by the University of Leeds I had hoped this episode was brought to a satisfactury solution. Unfortunately, I was wrong.