The academic freedom farce at the University of Cape Town

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]David Benatar, a professor of philosophy and head of the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, was one of the proponents behind the invitation to journalist Flemming Rose, the editor responsible for publishing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, to deliver the 2016 TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom. The invitation to Rose was rescinded by the university because Rose’s appearance might provoke conflict on campus, pose security risks and might “retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus.” In a guest post, Benatar, writing here in a personal capacity,  shares his thoughts on the 2017 lecture. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”81181″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]In 2016, the executive of the University of Cape Town in South Africa overrode its academic freedom committee’s invitation to Flemming Rose to deliver the annual TB Davie academic freedom lecture. Mr Rose was disinvited over the protestations of the then members of the academic freedom committee. The irony of preventing a speaker from delivering an academic freedom lecture seems to have been lost on the university’s leadership, with the vice-chancellor, Dr Max Price, publicly defending the decision to disinvite.

Like all campus censors, Dr Price professed his commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression before justifying his violation of these very principles. His arguments were roundly criticised by some. Other members of the university community supported the decision he and his colleagues had taken, which is part of a broader institutional pathology that, so far as I can tell, is even more pervasive than otherwise similar pathologies at various universities in North America and Europe.

The TB Davie Memorial Lecture was established in 1959 by students at the University of Cape Town. It is named after Thomas Benjamin Davie, vice-chancellor of the university from 1948 until his death in 1955. Dr Davie vigorously defended academic freedom against the apartheid regime’s imposition of racial segregation on higher education in South Africa, a battle that was ultimately unsuccessful.

A preface to printed versions of some past lectures in the series says that the “TB Davie Memorial Lecture keeps before the university a reminder of its ethical duty to defend and to seek to extend academic freedom”.  The events of 2016 demonstrate that reminders are insufficient. One can remember the duty without fully understanding it, and one can understand it without having the courage to discharge it. Courage is needed to protect unpopular speech and speakers, not to protect orthodox views and their purveyors.

There have been some developments to this sad saga. First the good news: The South African Institute of Race Relations, upon hearing of the disinvitation of Mr Rose, invited him to South Africa to deliver the annual Hoernle lecture, which he did without incident in both Johannesburg and Cape Town in May 2017. While in South Africa, Mr Rose also spoke at the University of Cape Town, albeit unannounced and in a small class at the invitation of a single professor. There he addressed and had a pleasant and respectful exchange with the students.

The bad news is that the academic freedom committee’s term of office ended soon after Mr Rose was disinvited. The committee’s expression of outrage over the disinvitation was its final act. There is some reason to think that this committee’s stand on the Flemming Rose matter galvanised the dominant regressive sector of the university in a way that influenced how the committee was repopulated for the new term of office.

The result is an academic freedom committee that, on the whole, is significantly tamed. For example, the new members of the committee include somebody who had criticised the earlier invitation to Mr. Rose and someone else who had claimed that “human dignity and civility trumps” freedom of speech. It is thus a committee that is much less likely to highlight or object to the many threats to academic freedom and freedom of expression within the university. It is also a committee that is unlikely to test the university’s commitment to these values by, for example, its choice of speakers for future TB Davie lectures.

It was unsurprising that the new committee has shown no signs of endorsing the six separate nominations it received for Mr Rose to deliver the 2018 lecture. Nor is it surprising that it invited Professor Mahmood Mamdani to deliver the 2017 lecture. (Although Professor Mamdani, now at Columbia University, but at one stage a professor at the University of Cape Town, has had his disagreements with the University of Cape Town, his criticisms are the staples of the university’s self-flagellation and thus very far from a test of freedom of expression.)

I wrote to Professor Mamdani on 2 April 2017 to advise him of the events of 2016 and to ask him to refuse to give this lecture until such time as Mr Rose is permitted to give his. In my email, I acknowledged that he, Professor Mamdani, “might use the opportunity of the TB Davie lecture to criticise the university for having disinvited Mr Rose”, but that it would be far more effective if he refused to give the lecture. I said that until “Mr Rose’s disinvitation is reversed, the TB Davie lecture will be a farce”.

About a dozen other members of the university community, mainly academic staff, subsequently wrote to him to endorse my request. To the best of my knowledge, none of us have received a response, and the lecture is scheduled to take place on 22 August. Until Professor Mamdani gives his lecture, we cannot be sure what he will say. However, his failure either to withdraw from the lecture or to reassure those who had written to him that he would be taking a stand against the disinvitation of Mr Rose does not augur well.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ show_filter=”yes” element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1502096677412-aee0a1d7-4cdb-4″ taxonomies=”4524, 8562″ filter_source=”category”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

TB Davie Memorial Lecture: David Benatar writes to Mahmood Mamdani

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]From: David Benatar
Subject: TB Davie Memorial Lecture
Date: 02 April 2017 at 12:49:25 AM SAST
To: Mahmood Mamdani

Dear Professor Mamdani

I understand that you are scheduled to give the TB Davie Memorial Lecture this year. This named lecture, as you know, is devoted to the theme of academic freedom and freedom more generally. What you might not know is that the 2016 lecture was going to be given by Mr. Flemming Rose, cultural editor of the Jyllands-Posten newspaper and notable defender of freedom of expression. However, the University Executive, over the protestations of the then-members of the Academic Freedom Committee disinvited Mr Rose because they perceived him as a controversial speaker. I responded to this ironic and outrageous breach of academic freedom here:

The Academic Freedom Committee’s term of office came to an end at around this time and the new committee has invited you to be the speaker in 2017. While it is possible that you might use the opportunity of the TB Davie lecture to criticise the University for having disinvited Mr Rose, it would be far more effective if you and other potential speakers in future years refused to give the lecture. Until Mr Rose’s disinvitation is reversed, the TB Davie lecture will be a farce. Thus I urge you to indicate to the Academic Freedom Committee that you will not deliver a TB Davie lecture until Mr Rose has been allowed to deliver the lecture he was invited to give.

Yours sincerely,
David Benatar[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_basic_grid post_type=”post” max_items=”12″ style=”load-more” items_per_page=”4″ element_width=”6″ grid_id=”vc_gid:1501498075189-5ba0ae4f-e1a9-10″ taxonomies=”16315, 4524, 8562″][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Index on Censorship condemns decision to axe Flemming Rose as speaker on academic freedom

Index on Censorship is appalled by the decision by the University of Cape Town to rescind an invitation to Danish editor Flemming Rose to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture on academic freedom – especially at a time when academic freedom is under threat around the world – and considering recent events in Turkey.

Rose, the editor responsible for publishing controversial cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed in the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in 2005, was invited last year to give the August 2016 lecture, which UCT describes as a “flagship lecture to promote academic freedom and freedom of speech” and which is organised by the university’s academic freedom committee.

However, in a letter sent by UCT Vice-Chancellor Max Price on 12 July, Price tells the committee that the university executive had decided “it would be extremely unwise to proceed with the address.”

What follows in the letter is an attempt by Price to justify a decision that makes a mockery of the university’s supposed defence of free speech and academic freedom.

Price – who signed an Index on Censorship letter defending academic freedom last year – begins by pointing out that no freedoms are unlimited, and highlights the limitations on free speech imposed by the South African constitution in which the right to free speech does not extend to propaganda for war, incitement of violence or advocacy of hatred. The implication of this reference is that Rose’s speech might amount in some way to one of these three. This is a dangerous and damaging route for an academic institution to take.

The letter then goes on to say that Rose’s appearance might provoke conflict on campus, pose security risks and might “retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus.” Although the letter acknowledges that the university considered holding the event as a debate with some representatives of the Muslim community – and acknowledges these representatives had been open to the idea – the letter goes on to say: “However, Mr Rose is seen by many as persona non grata and while most would protest peacefully against him, we believe there is a real danger that among those offended by the cartoons, an element may resort to violence.”

The academic freedom committee responded to Price, saying in a statement: “Academic freedom is severely compromised when security and other pragmatic considerations preclude inviting speakers who – while controversial – in no way violate our Constitutional limitations on free speech… We regret the Executive’s decision and what it reveals about the limited scope of academic freedom at UCT. Ours should be a campus on which people are free to express and contest ideas, even unpopular ones.”

The decision taken by the administration of UCT is a clear example of a type of “assassin’s veto” in which those who argue they are offended by the speech of others can use the threat of violence to silence those with whom they disagree.

Jodie Ginsberg, Index on Censorship chief executive said: “This a huge blow to free expression and academic freedom and UCT’s attempts to dress this up as otherwise are to be condemned in the strongest terms.”

Also read:

Flemming Rose responds to the University of Cape Town

Dr Max Price, Vice-Chancellor of UCT, letter to the academic freedom committee

UCT Academic freedom committee response to Dr. Max Price

UCT statement: Withdrawal of invitation to speaker of TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture

Kenan Malik: Academic freedom and academic cowardice

Flemming Rose responds to the University of Cape Town

The University of Cape Town rescinded an invitation to journalist and editor Flemming Rose, who had been scheduled to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture on academic freedom in August. In 2005 Rose commissioned the cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that sparked protests and riots across the world.

Regarding my thoughts on the matter and the arguments put forward as motivation for taking back the invitation I find three things important:

1. I find it disgraceful that the Vice-Chancellor Mr. Max Price puts the blame on me instead of taking responsibility for his decision. He is afraid that some people might react in certain ways to my presence. That’s not my responsibility. If they choose to act in a way that concerns the VC, it’s their decision, not mine. The VC has to hold them responsible for their actions, not me. It’s the heckler’s veto. Mr. Price talks about “the harm that unlimited freedom of expression could cause.” I don’t know any person including myself who is in favor of unlimited free speech, that’s a caricature of free speech activists. What I oppose is the kind of “I am in favor of free speech, but”-position that Mr. Price provides a classic example of. His approach to free speech would make it possible to ban any speech.

2. Mr. Price is misrepresenting my position. He writes: “Mr. Rose is regarded by many around the world as right wing, Islamophobic, someone whose statements have been deliberatively provocative, insulting and possibly amount to hate speech, and an editor of a publication that many believe took a bigoted view of freedom of expression.” He adds that I am defender of “selective blasphemy”. What are the sources for these accusations? An article from 2006 at the height of the cartoon crisis, when a lot of unchecked information and rumors were making the rounds, among them that I was working for Mossad, the KGB’s successor in Russia and the CIA. My guilt seems to be that I have met and interviewed Daniel Pipes. The other source is a review of my book The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech by a Danish professor who has been biased against me and Jyllands-Posten from the outset.

I find it strange that the VC uses Peter Hervik’s review as a source of authority. Hervik labels me a “radical rightwing activist” without defining what he means by that and even worse without quoting anything from what I have said and written. I am a classical liberal. I do not defend selective blasphemy, I defend the right to blasphemy as such. To provide you with an impression of his approach let me quote from the review. He writes about me:

“Not least his enormous urge to gather any news coverage from around the world in order to show that ‘I was right and that others were wrong’.”

Sounds a bit like a fanatic, or at least that’s the impression he wants to convey.

This is what I actually wrote:

“At first I wanted to document that I was right and others were wrong. But along the way, I found out that I needed to look inward, to reflect on my own story and background. Why was this debate so important to me? Why was I from the outset, almost, instinctively, able to identify the core issue… I am fully aware that other versions exist that are no less true than my own; in some cases they may be even more complete.”

“I do have strong opinions when it comes to certain things. But I am not a person who takes an instant stand on just anything. I am a natural skeptic. I ponder at length and lose myself in layers of meaning and the many sides of an issue, I don’t see that trait as a flaw: It is the condition of modern man and indeed the core strength of secular democracies, which are founded on the idea that there is no monopoly on truth. Doubt is the germ of curiosity and critical questioning, and its prerequisite is a strong sense of self, a courage that leaves room for debate.”

A bit different than Hervik’s version, right?

To me this looks like a deliberate distortion of I was trying to say in that paragraph. Disagreement is necessary and fine but we have to present the point of view of our opponents in a more or less fair way. Anyone who needs to misrepresent the point of view of his opponent usually has a bad case.

It’s really a sign of poor judgement and bad academic standards to disinvite me on the basis of what other people say about me, when I have published a book that covers my own story, which tells how my views on politics were formed and analyses the history of tolerance and free speech. The book is not only focusing on Islam. I write about the Russian Orthodox’ Church silencing of criticism, Hindu-nationalists attacks on an Indian Muslim artist and so on and so forth. Why use second-hand sources when you can read the primary source in English and make up your mind?

This doesn’t mean that I would favour banning a “radical right wing” speaker, whatever that means. I would defend such a speaker’s right to make his case. After all, that’s the way we learn to argue against points of views that we don’t like.

3. Mr. Price is also getting the facts wrong about Jyllands-Posten and its position. The newspaper published several cartoons ridiculing Jesus, even by Kurt Westergaard, the artist that did the cartoon of the Mohammad with a bomb in his turban. The Jesus cartoons that were refused were submitted by a freelancer not a staffer, so it was like refusing any other article or cartoon by a freelancer.

In my book (the Danish version) I have included some of those and other images. Apart from Westergaard’s I have added Serrano’s Piss Christ and an image by Jens Jørgen Thorsen, a Danish artist who in 1984 painted Jesus with an erection on a public building and cartoons from the Nazi Magazine Der Stürmer, George Grosz’ drawings of a Christ-like figure equipped with a gas mask on the cross next to a canon (World War I) and Manet’s Lunch on the Green Grass. All this to show examples of images that throughout history have caused controversy.

Contrary to what Mr. Price writes, Jyllands-Posten published antisemitic cartoons and cartoons mocking the Holocaust (a full page on 4 February, 2006 at the height of the cartoon crisis) that previously had been published in Arab newspapers. We, like most other Danish newspapers, published submissions to the Iranian Holocaust cartoon contest as well. We did it, not because we support the views expressed in the cartoons (the same point goes for the Mohammed-cartoons) – publication does not mean endorsement. We did it in order for our readers to see what makes people laugh in the countries where many were so upset by the Mohammed cartoons.

Recently I have defended radical imams’ right to hate speech, and I have (in Danish) written favorably about a book by a socially conservative Norwegian Muslim (title: Is it possible to love the Koran and Norway at the same time?).

Also read:

Index on Censorship condemns decision to axe Flemming Rose as speaker on academic freedom

Dr Max Price, Vice-Chancellor of UCT, letter to the academic freedom committee

UCT Academic freedom committee response to Dr. Max Price

UCT statement: Withdrawal of invitation to speaker of TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture

Kenan Malik: Academic freedom and academic cowardice