Why Is a Notorious Free-Speech Censor Being Given a Platform at a Major Academic Gathering?

Leading intellectuals are outraged that Monique Canto-Sperber, who famously quashed two events sponsored by Israel critics, is being given the stage to discuss “freedom of speech.”

On Friday, April 24, in a lush corner of New York’s Upper East Side, the French Embassy and other organizations will put forth a “A Night of Philosophy” from 7 pm to 7 am, featuring some sixty-two lectures, twelve performances, six art videos, and live music. The organizers have done a spectacular job of gathering together some of the very most important thinkers of our day to expound on a wide range of topics. Simon Critchley will take on the taboo topic of suicide, Kwame Anthony Appiah will opine on honor, and Mériam Korichi has penned a melodrama titled Spinoza in Kiev, which will be performed at 1:00 am, to site just a few examples.

One lecture, however, promises more than simple intellectual and philosophical brilliance. It might offer an episode of cognitive dissonance.

At 7:00 pm, the philosopher Monique Canto-Sperber will help kick off the evening with a lecture on “freedom of speech” in the ballroom of the French Embassy. The crux of her talk? “Can we go along with the traditional concept of freedom of speech which constitutes the liberal state? Or should we reconsider?”

Canto-Sperber is well known among French intellectuals as the Director of Research at the National Center for Scientific Research in France and, before that, as Director of the École Normale Supérieure (ENS). But she is infamous among academics and free-speech advocates as the censoring force who shut down two ENS events that seemed to her to stand outside the bounds of free speech. Both episodes involved events organized by the Collectif Palestine, which supports the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israel, and both are considered so serious that a high-profile group of academics and thinkers has issued an open letter protesting Canto-Sperber’s appearance at “A Night of Philosophy.”

“For a major event on philosophy, a field that is predicated on free inquiry and intellectual exploration, to give a forum on free speech to someone who, as the head of one of the major prestigious schools in France, was responsible for two of the most egregious acts of censorship of Palestinians and of critics of Israeli state policies, is beyond being a stark contradiction—it is appalling,” the letter reads. Its signatories include such pre-eminent French thinkers as Alain Badiou, Etienne Balibar, Jacques Ranciere, and Catherine Malabou, as well as US academics Joan W. Scott, Judith Butler, Angela Davis, Richard Falk, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and well over a hundred others.

The “egregious acts of censorship” to which the authors refer took place in 2011, during Canto-Sperber’s tenure as director of ENS. The first event was supposed to have featured Stéphane Hessel, the legendary author, activist and diplomat who fought in the French resistance, survived Buchenwald and went on to help draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. In 2010, he wrote Indignez-Vous! a call to moral outrage and nonviolent insurrection that is widely credited with inspiring the Occupy movement.

The second event proposed by the Collectif Palestine was timed to international Israeli Apartheid Week and was supposed to have consisted of a series of discussions and debates. Canto-Sperber refused to allow this event to go forward as well, ultimately forcing it off the ENS campus.

Writing in The Nation in early 2011, right after the Hessel affair, Charles Glass reported: “Students at the École Normale invited Hessel to address them in Paris in January. Popular with young people throughout France, Hessel was likely to attract a full house. Then the authorities stepped in. Monique Canto-Sperber, the school’s director, withdrew the invitation and refused to allow Hessel to give an address. She objected to his insistence that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights applied as much to Palestinians as to the French.”

Canto-Sperber’s actions spawned a small frenzy across the pond, with the Conseil Représentatif des Institutions Juives de France and the Minister of Higher Education Valérie Pécresse quickly voicing their support. So did pundits such as Bernard-Henri Lévy, Arielle Schwab, Claude Cohen-Tanoudji and Alain Finkielkraut.

On the other side, an international group of academics, including Joan W. Scott, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky and Natalie Zemon Davis, issued a letter of protest in which they noted their “dismay” at “recent events at the school.” “The actions of the Director, Monique Canto-Sperber, first banning a talk by Stéphane Hessel and then refusing to allow the Collectif Palestine ENS to hold a meeting on campus, is a denial of the rights of freedom of expression and freedom of assembly,” they wrote.

In her reply, Canto-Sperber argued that her decision was based on the fact that “both sides” were not being presented and claimed the event was anti-Semitic. She further argued that, since the events were sponsored by an organization that favored BDS, and boycotting a State is illegal under French law, the event had to be canceled.

To which the petitioners responded:

“It should not be necessary to stress that everyone involved with this petition is firmly opposed to anti-Semitism in all its forms. We have seen nothing to suggest that members of the committee that attempted to organize the two events cancelled by the Director were in any way motivated by anti-Semitism, and we are concerned that accusations of anti-Semitism, a very grave offense indeed, are being made frivolously in order to silence one side in a needed debate about the Israel/Palestine conflict.

As for the question of the one-sidedness of the banned meeting, we don’t see a problem. Many meetings that take place at ENS and elsewhere do not require that every opinion on a matter be presented. It is not a matter of representing opposing views, and achieving “balance,” but of hosting events that ask serious questions about the relationship between discrimination, occupation, social justice, and international law. There is a long tradition at ENS that has done precisely that”.

The petitioners were also deeply troubled by Canto-Sperber’s argument that boycotting a State is supposedly illegal under French law, and therefore an event sponsored by an organization that favors boycotting Israel must be illegal, Canto-Sperber seems to have purposefully obfuscated the issue. That a person or a group might advocate one thing that is illegal does not mean that they should be denied freedom of speech in general. If, during the Vietnam conflict, someone advocated draft resistance, they were certainly within their legal rights to do so. But Canto-Sperber, if she were an American university administrator, would have not allowed any event on campus that even discussed the issue.

In the end, despite protests, debate and a court case, the advocates of censorship prevailed. While a lower court sided with the organizers of the ENS events, Canto-Sperber persisted, appealed and won on appeal. The higher court found that ENS was under no obligation to offer its space for these events.

This was a blow to academic freedom and the very liberal educational ideals that Canto-Sperber, as head of ENS, was supposed to be nurturing and protecting. Yet, what has made the events of 2011 particularly troubling is the way they have been echoed in the ensuing years by other institutions, which have been all too willing to quash organized efforts to question Israeli state policies, particularly when those who are doing the questioning support BDS.

The examples are numerous. Just this past March, in Lyon and at University of Paris-1, university administrators cancelled events at which there was to be frank and open discussion of Israel-Palestine. And at the University of Paris-8, the administration first tried to close an event featuring Max Blumenthal, but finally relented after a wave of protests broke out. The message, harking back to Canto-Sperber’s initial acts of censorship, is that any group wishing to present an event critical of the state of Israel had better plan to have it in the streets.

Nor is the censorship limited to France. In England, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Southampton recently cancelled a planned academic conference on Israel just days before it was supposed to take place. The conference on “International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism” was due to be held at the university on April 17 through 19.

In response to the cancellation, over ten thousand individuals signed a letter of protest, and the British Committee for the Universities of Palestine (BRICUP) issued a statement condemning the University for allowing political pressure to determine its academic activities. Professor Jonathan Rosenhead, Chair of BRICUP, said, “In living memory no academic conference at a UK university has been cancelled due to external political pressure.”

For Richard Falk, who had been invited to speak at the conference, at least part of the tragedy is that all these many acts of censorship are taking place at the precise moment when robust conversation is most desperately needed. “To deny open debate on Israel/Palestine is particularly unfortunate at this moment when almost every sane person admits two things: diplomacy on the conflict has failed, and there is no sign that either governments or the UN are capable of protecting the Palestinian people from further abuse,” noted the former UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.

“Beyond this,” he added, “the result at Southampton, even if eventually reversed, has created a terrible precedent from the perspective of academic freedom, open debate, and constitutional democracy, as well as giving these dark forces that succeed in Britain a strong incentive to use similar tactics elsewhere.”

In some ways, Falk’s warning comes too late. From Brooklyn College to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, academic institutions in the United States have taken to cracking down on organized, nonviolent attempts to criticize Israel, with the guardians of academe showing particular contempt for any groups that advocate for BDS. And just to the north, the Canadian government signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel this past January, which commits the two countries to developing “a coordinated, public diplomacy initiative both bilaterally and in international and multilateral fora to oppose boycotts of Israel, its institutions, and its people. ” In Israel, meanwhile, an “Anti-Boycott” law, which was just upheld by the country’s High Court of Justice, allows any individual to sue anyone or any organization advocating boycott of Israel.

All of which brings us back to “A Night of Philosophy,” which would grant a stage for Monique Canto-Sperber, one of the early adopters of the current wave of repressive measures, from which she can pontificate on what should and should not count as freedom of speech.

Philosophy should not be made the servant of ideology. If we swallow Canto-Sperber’s brand of free speech, along with the kinds of repressive policies it underwrites, we really have very little to celebrate.