Danish editor sparks free speech row in South Africa

Danish editor sparks free speech row in South Africa July 26, 2016

Flemming Rose, above, of the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten, was due to deliver an academic freedom lecture in August to students at the University of Cape Town, but, because the university’s administration considers him to be ‘a security risk’, his invitation has been rescinded.
According to this report, as culture editor of Jyllands-Posten, Rose commissioned cartoons depicting the “Prophet” Mohammed that many Muslims considered blasphemous. The publication of the cartoons in 2005 triggered widespread protests and riots across the Muslim world, some of which turned deadly.
Rose was set to give the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture, described on the university’s website thus:

In the classic expression of freedom of speech and assembly, UCT’s policy is that our members will enjoy freedom to explore ideas, to express these and to assemble peacefully.
The annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture on academic freedom was established by UCT students to commemorate the work of Thomas Benjamin Davie, vice-chancellor of the university from 1948 to 1955 and a defender of the principles of academic freedom.
Organised by the Academic Freedom Committee, the lecture is delivered by distinguished speakers who are invited to speak on a theme related to academic and human freedom.

The university committee that extended the invitation to Rose refused to rescind it but was overruled by the university administration. In a statement the Academic Freedom Committee described Rose as an “eminently qualified candidate” to speak on issues including religious tolerance, threats to education, free thought and free expression.
The committee expressed regret about the administration’s decision:

And what it reveals about the limited scope of academic freedom at UCT.

The university’s vice-chancellor, Max Price, above, said in a letter to the Academic Freedom Committee that the decision to withdraw the invitation was made reluctantly:

Since we recognise that a decision not to provide an official platform to Mr Rose is an acknowledgment of the limitations on freedom of expression in general and academic freedom on our campus. No freedom, however, is unlimited. As with all rights, context and consequence are also critical.

Price’s letter cites three main reasons for the rescinded invitation. The first two relate to the possibility that Rose’s talk could provoke protests on campus and create security risks.

We are convinced his presence at this time would lead to vehement and possibly violent protest against him and against UCT. The risks are to the security and bodily integrity of Mr Rose himself; to those who will host him, and those who will attend the lecture; to the ability to hold a public lecture without total disruption; to the fragile but uneasy calm which currently exists on campus; and to the positive interfaith relations which currently mark public life in the Western Cape.

The third reason was that:

Bringing this speaker to deliver the TB Davie lecture in the current environment might retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus.

David Benatar, a philosophy professor at Cape Town and a member of the Academic Freedom Committee, accused Price of engaging in:

Doublespeak … He wishes to restrict academic freedom in order to advance it.

Writing in an op-ed published on Politicsweb, a South African news site, Benatar said:

The university should be standing firm on freedom of speech and teaching those who do not already know, that this value extends (most crucially) to people with provocative and even divisive views.

He also pointed out:

It is unsurprising that Mr. Rose’s unrepentant publication of the Mohammed illustrations makes him a controversial figure. However, it is precisely such a person who is a barometer of how much freedom of expression we enjoy. Everybody is willing to tolerate some speech. The real test of freedom of expression occurs when people are asked to tolerate the speech of those whose ideas they do not like. On that test, the University of Cape Town has shown that it does not have the robust commitment to freedom of expression that it says it has. 

In a response to the vice-chancellor’s letter posted on the Index on Censorship magazine’s website, Rose wrote:

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 …

Rose also objected to Price’s characterisations of him in his letter.
Price wrote:

Mr. Rose is regarded by many around the world as right wing, Islamophobic, someone whose statements have been deliberately 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 … No doubt all these claims can be contested, and the precepts of academic freedom should require us to hear him out. But presenting a speaker such as Mr. Rose as the chosen champion of the University of Cape Town to deliver its symbolic and prestigious TB Davie public lecture on academic freedom will, in our judgment, divide and inflame the campus.

Rose described himself as a “classical liberal” and pointed out that he recently defended the free speech rights of Muslim imams in a Politico Europe piece. He wrote that in his book The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech (Cato Institute, 2014), he did not focus only on Islam but also wrote:

About the Russian Orthodox Church silencing of criticism, Hindu nationalists’ attacks on an Indian Muslim artist and so on and so forth.

Index on Censorship said in a separate article that it was “appalled” by the decision by Price’s decision, especially as Price had signed an Index on Censorship letter defending academic freedom last year.

Hat tip: BarrieJohn

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  • gedediah

    As a state funded education setting the university is violating free speech principles. Maybe SA has weak laws in this area but you’d think given their history they’d be a bit tighter on it.

  • L.Long

    Sorry but as a business (education) and the need to keep the students safe, I see no problem here! There is a vast difference from not allowing speech that could cause trouble at an open gathering, and limiting the open discussion of ideas in a class.
    Just consider it is YOUR kid at this school and they do let this dude in and there is violence! Would you be OK with ‘oh well they did encourage free speech so it was OK to kill my kid!’
    When they STOP free expression in the class room is when I would be concerned.

  • Broga

    @ L.Long: “When they STOP free expression in the class room…… ”
    Free expression is free expression and it is threatened by thugs who have no rational arguments to support their point of view. Free expression is already being stopped in classrooms as we find in the UK with Islam dominated faith schools.

  • Smokey

    They’re afraid of violent reactions from extremist Muslims?
    Would you look at that. Terrorism works. We have been terrorized. We are still terrorized. We live in constant terror.
    Not even Voldemort could have done this better. And I thought Fudge was an imaginary person. Silly me.

  • Har Davids

    Freedom of speech is fine, as long as no one is feeling offended. Too bad it’s one particular group that feels offended most of the time, and some members of this group just go out and kill some people for relief.

  • CoastalMaineBird

    FaceTime or Skype or something would get past the “bodily security” issue.

  • The quotations from Mr. Price speak of interfaith relations. I had no idea that Mennonites were prone to disrupting lectures. Or is it Quakers? Shinto? I can’t tell from his letter. Perhaps someone could let me know which group is under discussion. I cannot possibly guess. I have no idea. Who could it be? Who? Utterly baffling. A mystery.
    Nah. I know. You know too.

  • I feel sick.

    And in the aftermath of today’s Islamic terrorist assassination of a French catholic priest, which is an abomination for sure, the Archbishop of Rouen, Dominique Lebrun, who was attending a Catholic gathering in Poland, said: “I cry out to God with all men of goodwill. I would invite non-believers to join in the cry.
    What a puerile sentiment. Us Non Believers are as incensed by islamic barbarism as any deluded catholic. I suggest that we atheists value life more than religious people because we know that we only have one short life and don’t rely upon the false consolation of a life in the fictional hereafter. In fact if one was really harsh one could ask the Archbishop of Rouen why be upset when he preaches that good catholics go to heaven. So why grieve the dead if they have gone to a better place?
    I know my comments will be condemned by most who read them but the pious need to be be honest about their position. Celebrate the lives of the dead because they are in heaven or grieve in the knowledge that they are not. So which one is it dear Archbishop of Rouen … Heaven or not?

  • L.Long

    Sorry Broga but I see nothing involving ‘faith schools’ in the post. As I said when free expression is squelched in schools then there is a problem. FAITH schools are an oxymoron and should be outlawed!

  • Matthew Carr

    Justifying academic cowardice with a smear? Maybe they are teaching about academic freedom at that.

  • Cali Ron

    And the terrorists have won! When you restrict freedom because of fear of terrorism you have played into their hands. Restrictions on speech and any other right is what Islam does, not freethinkers.