In a worrying development, the University of Birmingham Administration ordered a discussion of the crisis in Palestine wholly within the Law Department in November to be cancelled on preposterously inadequate grounds. The Dean of the Law School initially endorsed the cancellation on scarcely less spurious grounds, then apologised. But the Administration has since failed to address questions put to it by the local UCU branch about the legitimacy of its action in light of its obligation to uphold academic freedom and freedom of speech. The UCU’s letter describing the events and setting out its questions is reproduced below.

Academic freedom and Freedom of Speech under threat at UoB
The University cancels a Staff-Student Listening Session on the Current Situation in Palestine organised by colleagues in Law.

Cancellation includes claims damaging to staff from Law:  The Dean of the Law School repairsUniversity of Birmingham executive: Silence

UCU have recently raised concerns with the Vice-Chancellor, seeking clarification on the policies and principles that were applied to cancel a recent event in the Law School and the apparent constraint on free speech and academic freedom that this cancellation entails.  Staff in the Law School, with expertise in fields such as international law, human rights law, criminal law, equalities law, and public law, sought to arrange a Staff-Student Listening Session on the Current Situation in Palestine.  They sought to do so following a range of similar academic led events held at universities across the UK.  Initially, this event was proposed for the 15th of November and then moved to the 22nd of November as staff were required to apply for approval under the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech. Staff were requested to do so, notwithstanding the fact that no external speakers were invited to participate.This event on the 22nd of November was then approved; however, after the event was publicized, approval was withdrawn.  Permission was apparently withdrawn at the request of the central administration (i.e. above the level of the Law School), because the flyer advertising the event included images of watermelons, which have become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity in the context of bans on public displays of the Palestinian flag in Israel. Watermelons are thereby a reference to Palestine as well as a reference to the suppression of references to Palestine.  The watermelon symbol is widely used by organisations, including Jewish Bloc and Jewish Voice for Peace, that express solidarity with the plight of the Palestinians.  The proposed event was not a protest or rally; instead, it was a planned academic discussion of “law and how it matters in relation to the current situation in Palestine.” The topics were within both the teaching and research remit of the academics involved.Subsequently, the Dean of the Law School wrote to all Law students to inform them that the event had not, in fact, been cancelled, but had been postponed “given significant concerns raised that the event would not be as inclusive as intended.”  Colleagues in the Law School were dismayed and concerned about the cancellation of an event that had been arranged and approved, that was an academic discussion for students and academics and that fell within the normal remit of teaching and research in the Law School. After concerns were raised about the implication of that message that the relevant staff were unable to provide inclusive spaces for discussion, the communication to students was edited to say there were “significant concerns” that the event “would not provide the safe and objective space for discussion that was intended.” The suggestion that it would not have been inclusive implied that the organizers would not be able to conduct a discussion on sensitive topics in law in an open and sensitive matter, despite their expertise and experience in domains where sensitivity and professionalism are routinely required.The adjustment implied that staff in the Law school are not considered able to offer a safe and objective space despite this being a central part of academic staff’s job. This was a damaging statement by the university directed against its staff.  Symbols attached to a flyer to publicise an event can only provide limited information (the Star of David can be a symbol that communicates support for Israel or antisemitism) and they do not communicate support for a particular political position or determine the content of the discussions that will be held. Equating the watermelon symbol  with antisemitism as the messages seem to imply casts references to or solidarity with Palestine as inherently bigoted, and runs counter to widespread evidence of the use of the symbol by a wide range of organisations, including Jewish Voice for Peace and the Jewish Bloc.  Such implications not only contribute to a culture of silence and wider attempts to supress legitimate debate and discussion but also suggest to students that staff hold discriminatory views.  Unless there is specific prior evidence to the contrary, the usual assumption that staff will uphold professional standards during discussion should apply.The  Dean of the Law School subsequently wrote to apologise to Law School staff for the way the message was communicated and this has been accepted by the staff in Law.  Those repairs to professional relationships are very much welcomed and addressing the matter professionally and quickly was very helpful at the level of the Law faculty.BUCU, however, wrote to the Vice Chancellor to ask about the policies and principles that were applied, above the level of the Law School, to cancel the event in the first place.  Cancelling seminars or discussion events is a serious matter that should not be undertaken lightly because it constitutes a clear signal to the staff and the wider community that the activity proposed is beyond the bounds of acceptability in the eyes of the employer. It therefore represents an interference with the right to freedom of expression; moreover,  cancellation has  a pernicious ‘chilling effect’ on free speech as staff ‘self-censor’ out of fear of being viewed negatively by their employer, their students, and the wider public. We recognise that this is an unbearable time for many of our students, particularly those with ties to Palestine and Israel. However, the university does not demonstrate care for our students by depriving them of opportunities to discuss contested legal and political issues with the experts employed to teach them. The university has not done enough to address long-standing issues of Islamophobia and antisemitism at the university. Its apparent stance on Palestine offers nothing to students who have experienced racism and exclusion on campus. There are several points of concern and uncertainties about the procedures applied that this sequence of events raises.  BUCU have asked for clarification on the following points:1.      Was the following Code of Practice on freedom of speech applied to this case?:      Under this Code of Practice, what grounds were used to cancel or postpone the event that had initially been approved?3.      Can assurances be given that “political impartiality” cannot be grounds for cancelling or postponing an event in light of the following sections of the University Ordinances?  According to them, academic staff have:∙         Freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions.∙         Freedom in carrying out research work without interference or suppression ∙         Freedom of teaching (having regard to relevant programme and/or module specifications as approved by the University, and subject to conveying knowledge associated with the discipline honestly and at a level appropriate to the students concerned) and discussion without constriction.∙         Freedom from institutional censorship, save where any statement or publication is demonstrably contrary to the law or to natural justice or to other legislation or codes of practice approved by the University for the purpose of avoiding discrimination or harassment.4.      Can assurances be given that messages that are sent to staff and students that cancel or postpone events are undertaken with care and guard against potential reputational risks to staff?  A message that an event was cancelled because it, and, therefore, its academic sponsors, were associated with or engaging in ‘uninclusive’, ‘unsafe’, and ‘unobjective’ speech is damaging and represents a supposition that staff would not uphold the professional standards that are normally assumed for university activities.We explained that we would like to update members about progress in resolving these concerns.  We have received no acknowledgement of the issue nor any form of reply, and so, to date, we have no progress to report.We are therefore acutely concerned that the University’s Code of Practice does not give due protection or consideration to the current and long existing legal protections of academic freedom of speech. These can be found within the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023, under Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and the relevant case law that applies here, and other statutory rights and duties pertaining to academic freedom set out in s.202(2)(a) of the Education Reform Act 1988 and the duty on universities to uphold freedom of speech under s.43(1) of the Education (No 2) Act 1986.  In addition, this case demonstrates the potential for the Code of Practice to be utilised as a means of prior restraint to constrain academic speech that is arbitrarily deemed controversial but not dangerous or unlawful.Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights protects speech that ‘shocks, offends and disturbs’. To consider that a ‘watermelon emoji’ falls beyond even this standard of permissible speech is an egregious interference with the right to freedom of expression. Moreover, the additional hurdles organising staff were required to comply with, followed by the subsequent withdrawal of permission, constitutes a ‘prior restraint’ on the right to freedom of expression and therefore requires an even higher level of justification on the part of the University to explain their actions.The University’s continued silence and failure to respond to the issues we have raised is therefore particularly problematic and suggests that it has not given due consideration to its legal obligations to protect free speech under the Higher Education (Freedom of Speech) Act 2023.