Mailbox: UCT cuts Rose’s talk. Is it the end of Freedom of Speech?

Flemming Rose is the Danish journalist that commissioned cartoons of prophet Mohammed that sparked protests and riots across the world back in 2005. Since then he’s become an international advocate for freedom of speech. Rose was initially invited to give a speech at the University of Cape Town, but was denied the right by Vice Chancellor Max Price. Rose was expected to speak at the TB Davie Memorial lecture, which celebrates academic freedom and freedom of speech. Price was concerned that the campus is already in a fragile state, and this could temper that. He further stated that the decision is an acknowledgement of the limitations of expression on University grounds. And in that one sentence Biznews community member Sara Weiss says the decision sees the end of Freedom of Speech, at an institution that should be encouraging it. Do you agree? – Stuart Lowman

From Biznews community member Sara Weiss

Those who believe that universities should be bastions of free speech and vigorous debate may be deeply saddened by events occurring at the University of Cape Town (UCT).

The UCT Executive has stopped Flemming Rose from delivering the 2016 edition of the annual TB Davie Memorial Lecture.

Rose is the former cultural editor of Jyllands Posten, the Danish newspaper that the newspaper that published the “Prophet Mohammed cartoons” in September 2005.

Jameson Hall, University of Cape Town.

The TB Davie Memorial lecture “celebrates academic freedom and freedom of speech”.

Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price, on behalf of UCT’s Executive, informed the AFC that it would not be permitted to bring Rose onto campus. He said that following concerns raised by a Special Executive Task Team, “[W]e have decided that we should not host the address by Mr Flemming Rose at [UCT] at this time.”

Price wrote: “We are convinced his presence at this time would lead to vehement and possibly violent protest against him and against UCT.” He said, “Our campuses have become charged spaces, in which ideological and social fault-lines have become intensely politicised, sometimes violently so.”

The TB Davie Memorial Lecture for 2016 will therefore not go ahead.

The AFC said that when it invited Rose “religious tolerance and the threats to education, free thought and free speech, and issues pertaining to visual representation, were prominent in our deliberations. Mr Rose was chosen as an eminently qualified candidate to speak on those matters”.

Read also: RW Johnson: UCT’s critical choice – go private or become another Turfloop

Price said that UCT with reluctance and regret the decision “is an acknowledgement of the limitations on freedom of expression in general and academic freedom on our campus.”

Price was concerned that the fact that public order on campuses is in a “fragile state” is deeply worrying which all “adherents of academic freedom should find disconcerting, and ultimately unacceptable.”

Price speaks as if the lack of freedom of speech on campus is in the hands of others, not the management of UCT. The lack of freedom of expression at UCT lies solely within the hands of those who manage UCT. It lies in the decisions they took with the uncivil protest that started in 2015.

It is to his shame that Price claims that Rose would retard rather than advance academic freedom on campus. Freedom of speech at UCT has not been retarded by Rose. It hasn’t even been retarded by the totalitarian students and staff who hate free speech. Revocation of freedom of speech has been made by those in authority who ceded to the demands of the authoritarians.

Flemming Rose

UCT should be unequivocal: any disruption of anybody’s right to speak will result in expulsion or dismissal. That is how seriously UCT should see the right to free speech.

But UCT’s management cannot do this without doing a complete volte face. In his report to students and staff about UCT’s progress with “transformation” (How UCT is stepping up transformation Max Price 11 March 2016), Price said management has accepted “disruption at public events and lectures…in the interests of promoting a constructive engagement with all groups. We will continue to do this provided the engagement is lawful, peaceful and respectful.”

Do Price and the UCT executive realise that in one paragraph they closed down freedom of speech at UCT completely?

Price affirms the right to freedom of expression. He said, however, “the right to academic freedom is not unlimited. Its exercise depends on a careful assessment of if and when such limits pertain, in line with the directives of our Constitution.”

Read also: Pennington: ‘Free Speech under attack’ – an era of global extremism

Jacques Rousseau, chair of the AFC, disagreed: “There is no suggestion of hate speech here, and no need to balance any rights – no rights would be violated by Mr Rose’s appearance or the content of his talk. Sensibilities might well be, but robust debate and argument are the business of a university, and the possibility of such is being compromised by the decision to rescind the invitation.”

The fact that an immense amount of courage is required to preserve a constitutional and universally democratic right, says the most depressing things about our democracy.

By the Executive’s logic it must not then invite anyone to speak who represents any point of view that runs the possible risk of offending someone. Everyone must be treated in the same way.

UCT cannot choose who to support and who to offend. It has to choose to invite no one, in the hope that one day it can reinvigorate free speech.

Zapiro's take on the UCT student protests - for more of the cartoonist's magic, click here.
Zapiro’s take on the UCT student protests – for more of the cartoonist’s magic, click here.

In a further communication to students and staff on 22 July 2016, Acting Vice-Chancellor Prof. Francis Petersen said that 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.”

Ultimately it is the responsibility of those entrusted with the management and policy of UCT to take the steps necessary to restore the freedom on its campuses.

Petersen goes on to say, “We accept that there will always be difference of opinion on a matter such as this one, and engagement is helpful for deepening our understanding of this kind of issue.”

It isn’t clear how the UCT executive is going to engage different views on “this kind of issue” as it has determined that it is too dangerous an issue to subject to open debate.

UCT can seek the understanding of the 26 000-odd students who want to study in an environment that practices free speech. The real challenge is to obtain an understanding of and appreciation for free speech from those few hundred who have helped destroy it.

UCT is no longer a university; it’s a technical college.