OPINION

Flemming Rose disinvitation: Right to academic freedom not unlimited - UCT

University says the reality in life is that decisions need to be wise and in the broader interest of the institution as a whole

UCT statement on withdrawal of invitation to speaker

The Executive of the University of Cape Town has given careful and extensive thought to the decision to withdraw the invitation that was extended by the UCT Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to Mr Flemming Rose to speak on campus for this year’s TB Davie Memorial Lecture. 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.

A key question that has to be asked, and was asked by the Executive and influenced its decision, is: “How exactly will bringing Mr Rose here at this time advance academic freedom on the campus and in the nation?”

- We are a university; we view a divergence of opinions as important for broadening our understanding of matters; we would be very concerned if everyone agreed on everything all the time. We are sure the difference of opinions that emerge in the resulting discussions will be interesting and enriching.

- The UCT Council Executive Committee and the full UCT Council were of the view that the invitation should be withdrawn. They supported the Executive in this decision.

- While we believe and agree that academic freedom (and many other freedoms) are constantly under threat the world over, there are instances (as in this case) where defending the right to academic freedom cannot override a broader context.

The Executive would have wished to allow anyone with any view to speak at any time, but the reality in life is that decisions need to be wise and in the broader interest of the institution as a whole. The larger community we are part of must also always be a factor to be considered.

- Please see below for the statement by Acting Vice-Chancellor Professor Francis Petersen to the campus community. It includes hyperlinks to Dr Max Price’s letter to the AFC on this important issue.

Ms Gerda Kruger
Executive Director: Communication & Marketing Department, UCT

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Letter from the Deputy Vice Chancellor to the university community:

Dear colleagues and students

Recently the Executive of the University of Cape Town made a decision concerning the upcoming TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture. The invited speaker was Mr Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish magazine, Jyllands Posten, which in 2005 had published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The publication of the cartoons generated extensive debate and controversy globally, regarding freedom of speech, blasphemy and Islamophobia, and was accompanied by public protests, riots and even loss of life. Most print media around the world refused to republish them.

It should be noted that when the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) issued this invitation to Mr Rose in March 2015, the climate on university campuses across South Africa was much quieter than it is now.

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.

After giving careful and extensive thought to this matter, the UCT Executive made the decision, with great reluctance and regret, to ask the AFC to withdraw the invitation to Mr Rose. On behalf of the Executive team Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price wrote to the committee outlining the reasons for this decision and I share this letter with you here. The AFC’s response is available here.

One result of the Executive’s decision is that there will be no TB Davie Academic Freedom Lecture this year.

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.

Sincerely

Professor Francis Petersen

Acting Vice-Chancellor

On behalf of the UCT Executive

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FAQ sheet on decision to withdraw invitation to Flemming Rose to address the 2016 TB Davie Lecture

1. What does this decision say about UCT’s commitment to academic freedom?

The University of Cape Town affirms our commitment to academic freedom and freedom of expression as enshrined in the South African Constitution. We view these rights as fundamental and a cornerstone of our institutional culture. Like all fundamental rights, however, the right to academic freedom is not unlimited. UCT also has a paramount responsibility to protect the safety and security of the campus community.

2. What is the role of the Academic Freedom Committee and the TB Davie Lecture at UCT?

The Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) has, as its terms of reference, the responsibility to ensure the institution upholds, protects and promotes academic freedom and university autonomy in particular. The AFC’s mandate and work are of vital importance, particularly in the current era where the promotion of these rights is critical.

The TB Davie lecture is an annual flagship lecture on campus, organized by the AFC, to promote academic freedom and freedom of speech.

3. How was the decision made to issue the invitation to Mr Flemming Rose?

The Academic Freedom Committee issued an invitation in March 2015 to Mr Flemming Rose to deliver the annual TB Davie lecture in August 2016.

Mr Rose was the cultural editor of the Danish magazine, Jyllands Posten. In 2005, he solicited and published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. The publication of the cartoons generated extensive debate and controversy globally, regarding freedom of speech, blasphemy, and Islamophobia, and was also accompanied by public protests, riots and even loss of life. Most print media around the world refused to republish them.

It should be noted that when this invitation was issued, the climate on university campuses across South Africa was much quieter and less volatile than it is now. #RhodesMustFall, #FeesMustFall, #UCTSurvivors and other groups that now protest regularly on the UCT campus were relatively unknown; the protest around the Rhodes statue had not yet been launched. Pro-Palestinian protest activity on campus was sometimes emotional but was not violent.

4. How was the decision made to withdraw the invitation to Mr Rose?

It is a decision we have come to after careful analysis of the risks presented by going ahead with the lecture. 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. No freedom, however, is unlimited. As with all rights, context and consequence are also critical.

5. Who was consulted within the UCT community? And what did they say?

The Executive consulted with a wide range of individuals and organisations (including students, Council members, academics and relevant organisations) in an attempt to get a view on their sense of the impact of the invitation should it go ahead. Of course there were a range of views across the board. Those inputs steered the executive in its final decision.

6. Who was consulted within the Muslim community? And what did they say?

See above

7. Who was consulted regarding the security concerns? And what did they say?

See above

8. What risks have been identified around having the lecture at 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.

Issued by: UCT Communication and Marketing Department, 22 July 2016