Academics take their university to court over Israel conference

Two professors who were asked to stump up £24,000 to cover policing and security for a conference on the legitimacy of Israel are challenging Southampton University in a test case….

Two professors who were asked to stump up £24,000 to cover policing and security for a conference on the legitimacy of Israel are challenging Southampton University in a test case over academic freedom.

For the second year running, the university has placed obstacles in the way of the proposed three-day gathering. In 2015, permission for the session was granted then withdrawn; this year, financial conditions have been imposed on the organisers amid fears that the conference will provoke mass protests.

Both professors work at Southampton: Oren Ben-Dor, who was born in Israel, teaches philosophy; Suleiman Sharkh, who was brought up in Gaza, lectures in engineering. The conference was entitled: International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism. It has now been postponed to spring next year.

One of the declared aims of the conference is 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”.

Last year the conference was criticised as partisan by the Jewish Board of Deputies and MPs including Eric Pickles, then the communities secretary, and Caroline Nokes, the Conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North.

According to the two professors, the university decided this year to reduce the conference from three days to two, withdrew premises suitable for a dinner and required the organisers to pay £23,873 for security, as well as extra funding for policing if more than 600 protesters gathered at the campus.

Prof 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 judicial review challenge against the university’s decision to charge for security is due to be heard on 6 April by the high court in London. It is expected to deal with both last year and this year’s cancellations.

Following changes to costs orders for judicial review challenges introduced by the government, the claimants rely partially on crowdfunding to pay for the case – a resource that is being exploited increasingly for claims.

Their crowdfunding page explains: “After a protracted process, the university initially changed its stance, but in giving permission it was on the condition that organisers should pay security costs of nearly £25,000. This amount was required for the hire of private security and fencing.

“This financial demand was based on inflated risk levels (in the absence of any intelligence),” they said. “Putting such a burden on organisers would mean that controversial debates could be silenced by any one, by simply threatening to hold a demonstration.”

Paul Heron, the solicitor at Public Interest Lawyers representing the professors, said: “Freedom of speech, no matter the subject, is an essential pillar of a democratic society. This freedom is even more important in an academic setting.

“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.”

Neither Southampton University nor Hampshire police commented on the latest case. Responding to last year’s cancellation, the university said it had “an excellent track record of upholding free speech and remains committed to its legal obligation to ensure freedom of speech within the law is secured for staff, students and visiting speakers”.

The university said the decision to stop last year’s conference was based on “concerns that the safety of staff, students and visitors could not be guaranteed” because large demonstrations were anticipated. It has argued that costs for academic conferences are not usually paid by the university but covered by organisers of each event.

Hampshire police says it follows national guidance set by the Association of Chief Police Officers (Acpo) on charging for services. This states: “There are some functions that police officers perform that are provided beyond day to day policing, and in some of these cases there are powers in law for a police authority to recover the costs of this additional policing under the provision of special police services.”