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More than 700 academics back Southampton free speech stance

March 20, 2015 at 9:22 am

More than 700 academics have signed a statement in support of the University of Southampton, in response to pressure from Israel advocacy groups to cancel a conference next month.

The signatories include distinguished professors, researchers and lecturers from the world’s leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Yale, University of California, University of Toronto, and many more.

The statement, first circulated on Sunday, garnered more than 200 signatures in just 24 hours.

Writer Ben White, who initiated the statement, believes that the “overwhelming response” indicates the level of concern “about attacks on free speech by those wanting to shield Israel and make certain topics off-limits.”

Southampton has been under pressure from groups such as the Board of Deputies of British Jews, the Jewish Leadership Council (JLC), and UK Zionist Federation for some months. Communities minister and Conservative MP Eric Pickles has also intervened.

The statement in support of the University of Southampton notes with concern the “partisan attempts” being made “to silence dissenting analyses of the topic in question.”

“For external pressure and interference, especially from political lobby groups and a government minister, to censor lawful academic discussion would set a worrying precedent.”

Further efforts were made this week by those seeking to cancel the conference, with senior Board of Deputies figures meeting Southampton officials.

While the Board claimed that the university was “reviewing its position”, JLC chief executive Simon Johnson expressed disappointment that the vice-chancellor “will not move on this as he considers academic freedom must be defended.”

Board vice-president Jonathan Arkush, meanwhile, described the event as “antisemitic.”

The university has confirmed its legal obligations to protect freedom of speech, stating that their academic staff “have the freedom within the law to question and test received wisdom, and to put forward new ideas and controversial or unpopular opinions.”

Conference organisers have expressed their gratitude to the university “for ensuring academic freedom within the law.”