University Of Southampton Taken To Court Over Israel Conference

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Two professors who were asked by the University of Southampton to cover the costs of security and policing at a conference discussing the legitimacy of Israel have taken the University to court in a case which could set a precedent for issues of academic freedom.

It is the second year running that the University has placed a number of restrictions on the conference organisers. Last year, the conference was cancelled after the University withdrew permission to run the event amid fears that it could be disrupted by demonstrators and criticism of the conference as ‘partisan’ by a number of political figures including the then Communities Secretary Eric Pickles and Caroline Nokes (Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North).

Organised by two University of Southampton professors, the conference aims to ‘educate a whole new generation of young Palestinian lawyers and legal and political scholars about new possible arguments and concepts in order to use international law better’.

The organisers, Oren Ben Dor, an Israeli-born Law and Philosophy lecturer, and Suleiman Sharkh, an engineering professor raised in Gaza, claim the university decided  to reduce the conference from three days to two, and refused to allow the use of premises suitable for holding a dinner. The organisers also said that they were required to pay £23,873 for security, as well as contribute extra funding  towards policing if more than 600 protesters are present during the event.

Professor Ben Dor told The Guardian:

There have been no threats of violence. [The costs] should not be imposed on conference organisers. The uniqueness of academic space is being compromised.

The issue is about who pays for the freedom of speech. What makes this conference unique is these excessive demands [to sustain]freedom of speech because of the conference’s controversial nature.

The university’s decisions are due to be challenged during a judicial review in the high court on 6th April, which is expected to discuss both this year’s and last year’s events. Following changes to the way in which judicial review decisions are funded, Professors Sharkh and Ben Dor have turned to crowdfunding to raise some of the legal costs to support their complaint. Their crowdfunding website states their belief that ‘as a matter of principle…it should not fall on the conference organisers to pay the cost of security measures needed to protect their academic freedom and freedom of speech.’.

Paul Heron, a solicitor representing the conference organisers, added:

We are of the view that Southampton University were put under unreasonable and unjustified pressure from parties outside the university and that when properly scrutinised there was simply no credible reason to cancel the conference.

Regarding last year’s event, the University said the decision to cancel was based on ‘concerns that the safety of staff, students and visitors could not be guaranteed’ if large scale demonstrations took place. It also added that the cost of academic conferences was usually covered by the event organisers and not usually paid by the institution.

Neither the University of Southampton nor Hampshire Police has yet commented on this year’s event.

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International Editor 2015-17. Third year French & Spanish student currently spending a year studying abroad in Concepción, Chile. Interested in media and world news.

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