Cambridge academics accuse University of “censorship” over interference with panel on Palestinian rights

Their open letter calls it “an intolerable violation of academic freedom”

Cambridge censorship human rights Israel open letter Palestine prevent Students terrorism university

This evening a panel event took place, featuring Omar Barghouti, human rights defender and founding committee member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

The event was originally meant to be chaired by Dr Rubah Salih, Reader in Gender Studies at SOAS but in an email to the PalSoc comittee, the University insisted that a "neutral chair" replace her, to ensure an "an open, robust and lawful debate". A member of their Communications Department took her place.

It seems that the University's insistence on an "independent chair" is a legal mechanism under Prevent duty guidance, which requires certain authorities to pay “due regard to the need to prevent people from being drawn into terrorism” when exercising their functions.

In response to the University's demands, a group of university academics penned an open letter protesting the "crackdown on Palestine event and threat to academic freedom".

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The letter reads, "We, the undersigned, condemn in the strongest possible terms the attempt by University of Cambridge administrative authorities to interfere in a panel event this evening headlined by the internationally recognised Palestinian human rights defender Omar Barghouti, and believe such efforts to constitute an intolerable violation of academic freedom by a self-styled global leader in its furtherance."

Much of the opposition to the event came in the form of a letter campaign coordinated by 'StandWithUs', a pro-Israel lobby group. The open letter claims that the StandWithUs campaign "rests on a litany of potentially libellous and bigoted accusations of racism against Omar Barghouti, fellow panellist Malia Bouattia, and event co-host and registered charity War on Want."

Bouattia, former President of the National Union of Students, was investigated by the NUS for anti-Semitism, with the conclusion that "it was not Malia’s intention to be anti-Semitic." She tweeted this evening:

The final paragraph of the letter states, "It is deeply concerning that the University has attempted to suppress this event through aggressive institutional intervention. In doing so, it risks being seen to side with those who seek to silence the voices of the marginalised, and raises questions about the extent of its commitment to free speech."

The letter closes with the statement that, "Such behaviour belies the University’s stated commitment to ‘light touch’ implementation of the government’s draconian ‘Prevent’ legislation. We urge the University not to risk its reputation by intrusive and high handed tactics such as these."

A University spokesperson said: “The University is fully committed to freedom of speech and expression. We do understand that certain events and issues invoke strong feelings among people and communities. But we believe it is important that staff, students and visitors to the University can participate fully in legitimate debate, partly so that they are able to question and test controversial ideas.

“We have no reason to believe that these events are in any way unlawful. Events will be well-chaired in order to ensure open, robust and lawful debate. In this instance, following calls from the organisers for extra safety measures, a neutral chair was provided to ensure that all sides were represented in what is an important and often emotionally charged debate."