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UCT under fire for ban on editor of Prophet cartoon

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The University of Cape Town is at the centre of a row over freedom of speech after barring a Danish journalist from campus because his magazine published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in 2005.
Flemming Rose‚ former cultural editor of Jyllands Posten‚ was due to visit UCT in August to give the 2016 TB Davie Memorial lecture‚ described by the university’s academic freedom committee as “a flagship event that celebrates academic freedom and freedom of speech”.

But university management decided that in light of the turbulent atmosphere caused by 2015’s Rhodes Must Fall and Fees Must Fall protests‚ the invitation should be withdrawn because Rose’s visit could provoke protests or violence.

The academic freedom committee said on Friday that when it refused to withdraw the invitation‚ vice-chancellor Dr Max Price said Rose would be banned from campus. “The book which bears the name of each TB Davie speaker since 1959 will carry an appropriate entry for 2016 reflecting this development‚” he said.

“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 committee said that when it issued the invitation to Rose‚ “religious tolerance and the threats to education‚ free thought and free speech … were prominent in our deliberations. Mr Rose was chosen as an eminently qualified candidate to speak on those matters.”

It added: “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. “In light of the expected protest against Mr Rose’s appearance‚ we had also planned‚ in consultation with Mr Rose‚ a panel discussion between him and his critics in order that disagreements related to tolerance and freedom of expression could be aired.” Acting vice-chancellor Francis Petersen said on Friday that the decision to bar Rose from the campus had been taken with “great reluctance and regret”.

He added: “The UCT executive remains committed to academic freedom and freedom of expression and we view these rights as fundamental to our institutional culture. As with all rights‚ however‚ context and consequence are also critical. We recognise that UCT also has a paramount responsibility to the campus community.” In his letter to the academic freedom committee on July 12‚ Price said that after widespread consultation‚ including talks with the Muslim community in Cape Town‚ it had been decided that it would be “extremely unwise” to go ahead with Rose’s visit.

“We have agonised over withdrawing the invitation‚ and we do so with great reluctance and regret‚ since we recognise that a decision not to provide an official platform to Mr Rose is an acknowledgement of the limitations on freedom of expression in general and academic freedom on our campus‚” he said. “No freedom‚ however‚ is unlimited. As with all rights‚ context and consequence are also critical.

“The executive would not have intended to – and hope never again to have to – interfere with an invitation to deliver a lecture on academic freedom. But the UCT context in 2016 is significantly different from that of 2014‚ and even that of March 2015‚ when the decision to invite Mr Rose was taken.” Price said university managers were convinced Rose’s visit would cause widespread protest and disruption‚ and “divide and inflame” the campus.

“We did consider the option of holding a debate with Mr Rose instead of a lecture. Our consultations suggest that many in the Muslim community would welcome this and a number of leaders indicated that in other circumstances‚ they would be willing to share the platform with Mr Rose and to subject his views to vigorous critique‚” he said. “However‚ Mr Rose is seen by many as a 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.”

There was a risk that Rose’s visit might retard freedom of expression‚ rather than enhancing it. “Everyone is deeply aware of the very testing circumstances that pertain to freedom of expression about controversial ideas in this country at present‚ particularly on university campuses‚” said price. “Our campuses have become charged spaces‚ in which ideological and social fault-lines have become intensely politicised‚ sometimes violently so.

“We know that many within our universities don’t feel safe to engage‚ which undermines the spirit of mutual tolerance and understanding. This is a deeply worrying situation which all adherents of academic freedom should find disconcerting‚ and ultimately unacceptable. “Academic freedom cannot survive‚ let alone flourish‚ in such an atmosphere. But will progress on this issue be advanced by inviting someone who represents a provocatively – potentially violently – divisive view to make the case for a considered version of academic freedom that is avowedly sensitive to the concurrent rights to dignity and freedom from harm? “If the brief of the AFC is to protect and promote academic freedom on campus and beyond‚ then we cannot see how the invitation to Mr Rose at this time will promote this goal.

“Indeed‚ it is far more likely to open up a broad new front of hostility between groups of students and staff‚ and to lead directly‚ both in the days before and after the lecture‚ to heightened tensions and possibly physical altercations‚ precisely at a time when many on campus are feeling bruised and misunderstood by the events of the past 16 months.

“This risks diminishing‚ rather than bolstering‚ the opportunities for proper and mutually respectful intellectual and institutional engagement.” Reacting to the withdrawal of his invitation‚ Rose said UCT’s “I am in favour of free speech‚ but…” view would make it possible to ban any speech.

[Source: TMG Digital/Cape Newsroom]
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