Academic organisers of a conference on Israel and international law will today launch legal efforts at the High Court, after the University of Southampton confirmed it was cancelling the event.
In what is being seen as an important test for free speech on British campuses, barristers acting on behalf of the organisers will this morning file grounds for an urgent judicial review of the decision.
The withdrawal of permission for the conference on the grounds of “risks to safety and public order” was first reported by the event’s organisers earlier this week, and subsequently confirmed in a statement on the university website.
The university administration has been under considerable pressure from pro-Israel groups, who objected to the conference’s subject matter.
But the withdrawal of permission for the event has produced an outpouring of support for free speech on campus, and dismay at the prospect of Southampton pulling the plug.
More than 6,300 people have signed a petition to the university, asking it to “uphold free speech and allow the conference on Israel and international law to proceed.”
By way of contrast, this is roughly the same amount of signatures in 48 hours as a Zionist Federation-organised petition against the conference gained over an entire month.
In parallel to the public outcry, dozens of academics in the UK and beyond, including staff at Southampton, have written to the Vice-Chancellor to express their dismay.
These included David Gurnham, Director of Research at Southampton’s own School of Law, who said that the “decision to withdraw support for a conference in this manner makes me, and I’m sure very many others like me, seriously question the University’s commitment to open and free debate.”
Another letter, by James McDougall, fellow of Trinity College, Oxford, described Southampton’s decision as “an attack on freedom of speech in our country”, and said the university’s leaders had “failed in their duty to their society, to their students, to their faculty, and to themselves.”
Meanwhile, a statement of support for the conference from academics has reached 900 names, including dozens from Oxbridge, Russell Group universities, and Ivy League schools.