Queen’s University Belfast n’est pas Charlie Hebdo; instead, it says nothing

Loose talk costs lives - via Padraig Reidy has reported that Queen’s University Belfast has cancelled a Charlie Hebdo conference, citing security fears. Áine McMahon also has the story in the Irish Times; and there is a short report on the BBC website. This is disgraceful. The symposium was entitled “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo“; and, according to its call for papers (pdf), its aim was to invite the disciplines of the humanities and social sciences to respond to the social ruptures that followed the January 7 attack on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper in Paris. There can be no greater irony than the censorship of a conference devoted to censorship. In particular, the call hoped that the following questions would be addressed:

Can we construct a global concept of freedom of speech? What role should censorship or ‘self-censorship’ play in contemporary societies, if any? How do we understand the propensity to ‘offend’ in a society that is home to diverse belief systems? What merits a ‘march’, and what are the merits of ‘marching’? Is satire cross-cultural, and how can we renegotiate the parameters of satire in the light of multiculturalism? Where do we draw the line between freedom of speech and incitement to hatred? What is the relationship between freedom of speech and the right to life?

However, an email sent today from the organisers of the symposium to the speakers, informed them that

The Vice Chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast has made the decision just this morning that he does not wish our symposium to go ahead. He is concerned about the security risk for delegates and about the reputation of the university.

Professor Patrick Johnston is President and Vice-Chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast. For shame, Prof Johnston; for shame. The reputation of your university that should concern you is the damage this cancellation will to to its reputation as an institution of learning where difficult and challenging issues can be debated. The reputation of your university that should concern you is the further damage a refusal to comment on this cancellation will do – a spokesperson for QUB confirmed to Padraig that the symposium will not go ahead, and that the university will make no further comment. As Jason Walsh commented

Censorship by the Vice Chancellor of Queen’s has done far more damage to the university’s reputation than an academic discussion on citizenship after Charlie Hebdo ever could.

Freedom of speech, freedom of enquiry, academic freedom – these are at the heart of the university. Or at least they ought to be. But these rights are not self-executing. Those who claim to support them have a duty to do so actively. It’s not enough to say such rights are important; it is necessary to be active in their defence and support, in particular when such defence and support are difficult. Those who claim to respect such rights must actively do so when it is difficult to do so; else they do not really respect them at all. Otherwise, hecklers in a hostile audience will have a veto on the speakers. As I have argued on this blog in the past, the heckler’s veto is antithetical to freedom of speech. In 2011, Trinity College Dublin, where I work, withdrew an invitation to a controversial speaker for security reasons; but it at least had the gumption to issue a statement on the matter, which is more than can be said for Queen’s. However, I wrote on this site that I was dismayed then by that turn of events; and I am even more dismayed now by the turn of events in Queen’s. Both Trinity in 2011, and Queen’s today, should have protected the process of freedom of speech and of academic enquiry by ensuring that the impugned events could have gone ahead. I did not think then, and I do not think now, that it is sufficient to say that public safety could not be guaranteed – public safety can never be “guaranteed”, but active steps can be taken to protect it. I think that it is particularly disappointing when any university fails to protect freedom of expression. Ensuring controversial speech on campus is the price of retaining academic freedom for a free society. It is a price we must be prepared to pay. Protesters must be allowed to make their point; but, by the same token, they must not have a veto on the speech of others.

Shamefully, universities are now siding with the veto and not with the speech. As Nick Cohen says of Prof Johnston’s decision:

… senior academics now see suppression of debate as a means of protecting “the reputation of the university”. Freedom of thought and open argument, once the best reasons for having universities, are now threats which must be neutered.

We will not now have answers to the Symposium’s questions in Belfast (and I shall have to make alternative plans for the 4th and 5th of June – I hadn’t booked yet, and now the decision has been made for me). But if even a university is not prepared to support such an endeavour, I do not see how we can in fact construct a global concept of freedom of speech, even though we should. Censorship should play no role in contemporary societies; ‘self-censorship’ driven by fear should be anathema. The propensity to ‘offend’ in a society that is home to diverse belief systems should be an occasion for debate and discussion, not censorship – those who are offended should explain to the rest of us why they are, and why we should respect their belief systems. Whilst satire may not be cross-cultural, in a multi-cultural society founded upon debate and discussion, it can be the catalyst for a dialogue about accommodation and respect, but it must not be the occasion for censorship. Legislation (for example, in the UK and Ireland) has drawn a line between freedom of speech and incitement to hatred, and if any of the presentations at Queen’s had crossed that line, then they could have been prosecuted – and that (rather than this prior restraint) would have been the appropriate response.

Shame on Prof Johnston for this ban. On his welcome page, he tells us that, in “the arts, the Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry underpins [his university’s] reputation as a world literary force”. Tonight, that reputation is in shatters. And I recall what Heaney lambasted as “the famous Northern reticence, the tight gag of place and times”:

Where to be saved you only must save face
And whatever you say, you say nothing.

Heaney’s 1975 poem “Whatever you say, you say nothing” (from North (Faber and Faber, London, 1975) 59) is a powerful polemic against propaganda and censorship, and a record of personal struggle against being “fork-tongued” (ibid, 58). A university which celebrates his poetry ought to heed its lesson.