Scholars protest censorship at the Ecole Normale Superieure in France


AURDIP | 21 mars 2011 |


More than 160 academics from the US, Canada, and the UK have written a letter to the Director of the Ecole Normale Supérieure in Paris protesting her refusal to permit students to hold meetings to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. The group includes the distinguished historian of France Natalie Zemon Davis, philosopher Judith Butler, physicist Freeman Dyson, as well as historians Marina Warner, Edmund Burke III, Joan W. Scott, and mathematicians David Mumford, Graeme Segal, and Haynes Miller.

Many of the group have long connections to France and to ENS, an institution they admire for its historical role in the critical and intellectual life of the country. Their letter accuses the Director of betraying the historical role of the ENS, as it is described on the school’s website : « For decades, the ENS has been the most prestigious site of French intellectual and scientific life. It participated in all the great intellectual debates of modern France, from the Dreyfus Affair to the movements of the 1930’s, and from the foundation of the human sciences to the avant-garde movements of the 1970’s. » One of the organizers of the letter campaign, Institute for Advanced Study professor of social science Joan Scott, commented that the group was « dismayed by the clear violation of freedom of speech and assembly that occurred. »

The Director of the ENS, Monique Canto-Sperber refused permission to the Colléctif Palestine ENS for several meetings, one of which was to have included Stéphane Hessel, most recently the author of the best-selling Indignez-vous !/Time for Outrage, in which he (among other things) criticizes Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Hessel is 93, a former ENS student, member of the Resistance, survivor of Buchenwald, one of the authors of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. « It is profoundly ironic, » remarks mathematician Michael Harris, another of the organizers, « that this graduate of the ENS who embodies what the school has long stood for, was banned from speaking there because the Director disagrees with his politics. »

Defending her actions, Canto-Sperber argued that the school had no obligation to permit such meetings to be held and that they might endanger public order. Her decision was upheld last week by the Conseil d’Etat (France’s highest administrative court). Canto-Sperber also commented that she did not want to endanger the good relations between ENS and Israeli academic institutions.

The letter of protest refuses the reasoning of Canto-Sperber, arguing that freedom of speech and assembly should not be restricted in this way.

The text of the letter and the list of signatures is available here.

The Guardian carried the story on March 21, 2011 :

Ban on Israel-Palestine debate ignites free speech row at French university. International petition calls on Ecole Normale Supérieure to restore ’long history of political expression’ by Kim Willsher