Southampton University being taken to court by its own staff

Uni staff are taking the uni to court over the fallout from the cancelled Israel conference

Professor Oren Ben-Dor of Law and Philosophy at Southampton, born in Israel, and Professor Suleiman Sharkh of engineering at Southampton, who was brought up in Gaza, have been asked to disburse £24,000 to cover policing and security for the Israel conference.

The two professors are protesting the costs demanded by the University in a precedent over academic freedom.

The conference on the legitimacy of Israel was cancelled last year. The University commented that it was withdrawn based on “concerns that the safety of staff, students and visitors could not be guaranteed”.  However, Professor Ben-Dor and Professor Sharkh believe that the University has merely given into external political pressure by government ministers and pro-Israel organisations.

The conference was previously condemned as bigoted by the Jewish Board of Deputies and MPs, including Eric Pickles and Caroline Nokes, the conservative MP for Romsey and Southampton North.

The declared purpose of the conference is to: “educate a whole new generation of young Palestine lawyers and legal and political scholars about new possible arguments and concepts in order to use international law better.”

For the second year running, the University have attempted to prevent the proposed three-day gathering. This year, financial propositions have been demanded from the organisers to police the event because of fears of mass protesting.

The University this year has attempted to reduce the conference to a two-day event, withdraw the premises suitable for a dinner and prescribe the organisers with a £23,873 bill for security, as well as extra funding for policing if the event attracted more than 600 protestors around campus.

Professor Suleiman told The Tab: “This year we were asked to pay nearly £24k to cover the cost of expensive fencing and private security – security risks were grossly inflated without any intelligence or evidence.  The organisers do not have, nor can they have any hope of raising this money…. As a matter of principle, it should not fall on the conference organisers to pay the cost of security measures needed to protect their academic freedom and freedom of speech. Indeed this is contrary to the University’s own Code of Practice”

The University approved the following Code of Practise in order for the University to take steps that are practical to ensure freedom of speech within the Law, is secured for members, students and employees of the University as well as for visiting speakers.

The Professors are relying on donations for the Court case. Their crowdfunding page says that “the University is well resourced to fight this case. We are not.” They are starting with a target of £5,000 and funds will run the case to the Court of Appeal if necessary from the High Court.

Solicitor Paul Heron, who is representing the professors said: “Freedom of speech, no matter the subject, is an essential pillar of a democratic society. This freedom is even more important in an academic setting.

“We are of the view that Southampton University were put under unreasonable and unjustified pressure from parties outside the university and that when properly scrutinised there was simply no credible reason to cancel the conference.”

The University of Southampton is yet to comment.

The Conference, which was entitled: International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism, has now been postponed to spring next year.

The Court of Appeal overturned last year’s High Court decision and the organisers have been granted permission to review the legality of the University’s decision. The hearing in the High Court will be on the 6th April 2016 and take place in London. It is anticipated to deal with last year’s case also.