Academic censorship by the University of Cape Town (UCT) Executive: commentators have missed the point
Late in July 2016, the UCT Executive overturned a statutoryaction taken 16 months earlier by the “vitally important” UCT Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) relating to the selection of the speaker for the TB Davie Memorial Lecture, “a flagship event that celebrates academic freedom”.
In doing this, I and many others maintain that the Executive undermined the very structure and governance of UCT and violated its statutory responsibility to defend the “fundamental and cornerstone rights” of academic freedom and unfettered debate of “ideas, even unpopular ones”.
Before I attempt to justify these views, let’s look at the AFC that took the overturned action. Like other statutory committees essential to the effective governance of UCT, its job is to ensure the “expression to the principles of simplicity, accountability and defined responsibility”, in this case for academic freedom.
In 2015, the committee members were: the Vice-Chancellor (Dr Max Price); Price’s nominee Deputy VC and eminent (NRF “A-rated”) law professor Danie Visser; UCT Council representative advocate Jeremy Gauntlett of Nkandla Constitutional Court fame; UCT Council representative Supreme Court Judge Ian Farlam, chairperson of the Marikana ‘Massacre’ Commission; UCT Senate-appointed Professors David Benatar (Philosoply), Leslie London (Public Health Medicine) and Pippa Skotnes (Fine Art); two non-professors nominated by the UCT Staff Association, Drs Elsia Galgut (Philosophy) and Christine Swart (Mathematics); and two students nominated by the UCT Students’ Representative Council.
For its actions in the TB Davie Lecture ‘Affair’, this committee has been described by a senior member of the UCT community supporting the Executive’s censorship decision as being composed of “tone-deaf”, ”arrogant” “provocateurs” having an “absolutist conception of academic freedom”.
The UCT Executive justified its act of censorship (taken less than two weeks before the scheduled lecture) on the basis of:
1. allegations of “bigotry”, “blasphemy and Islamophobia” against the speaker;
2. “very serious security considerations”; and
3.the need to abandon academic freedom depending on “context” in general and, in particular, “directives of our Constitution” relating to “hate speech” and “incitement of imminent violence”.
Unfortunately, much of the commentary on this censorship has focused on item 1 or, worse still, morphed into a debate about the Palestinian vs Israel debacle. Regardless, neither the UCT Executive, nor anyone else, has provided compelling evidence supporting the allegations against the speaker, award-winning editor/journalist Mr Flemming Rose.
Until 4 August, the only commentary on this matter circulated within UCT was a fear-motivated piece by Judy Favish condemning Rose personally and maintaining that academic freedom needs to be “contextualised”. Fortunately, AFC members Prof. David Benatar, Mr Jacques Rousseau and Dr Elisa Galgut have, in their personal capacities, decisively refuted Favish’s and other item-1-related allegations.
If precedents have any bearing on this matter, what about previous TB Davie speakers, eminent ‘Orientalism’ critic Edward Said and linguist/activist Noam Chomsky? Said, has been described as an “anti-Semite” and "professor of terror" and Chomsky as an “anti–Semite” “patron of the neo-Nazis” and "the Ayatollah of anti-American hatred."
Sadly, a common tactic employed by members of totalitarian movements to deal with their critics when they cannot expose their moral or logical flaws is to label any critique or call for debate as an insult and punish the offenders. We only need to look to at the South African Broadcasting Corporation (past and present) and post-liberation Zimbabwe to find ongoing examples of this tactic.
So, on the basis of item 1, the Executive’s action was not justified. If there is some new evidence, that Rose is a bigoted, blasphemous, hate/violence-speaking Islamophobe, produce it.
With regard to item 2, “security”, the UCT Vice Chancellor’s letter is vague at best. The VC refers to “concerns”, but lists none specifically. He says the Special Executive Task Team (SETT), chaired by Deputy VC Prof. Francis Petersen, “raised concerns” about the speaker when it “became aware” of the invitation to Mr Rose. Then it acted “immediately” and consulted “widely within the University, and within the Muslim community of Cape Town”. The VC’s statement generates more questions rather than understanding.
When did the SETT become “aware” of the invitation? Since two members of the Executive (the VC and Deputy VC Visser) are members of the AFC, they were “aware” of it from March 2015. Who within or outside of SETT was “concerned”. It was stated recently that some (all?) of the ‘outsiders’ were “#RhodesMustFall students” who “would not have allowed the speaker on campus”. What were the SETT/outsider concerns and underpinning evidence? Who were/are the ‘outsider’ elements who constituted “very serious security considerations”? Did they ask the AFC/Rose to confirm that his address would not contain hate speech or incite violence? Who was consulted “within the University”?
Why consult “the Muslim community of Cape Town” about a UCT-specific matter, given that there are many Muslim staff/students at UCT? Given that the AFC “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”, were those “concerned” with or opposed to the invitation invited to join this panel? If they were and declined, why?
Most importantly, why was this act of censorship taken only 16 months after the invitation was issued, resulting in a cancellation of the 2016 TB Davie Lecture?
A couple of questions about more general statements by the Executive.
What is meant by:
1. “The right to academic freedom is FUNDAMENTAL [= a central or primary rule or principle], but cannot be exercised in a vacuum.”? and
2. “Our campuses have become charged spaces.”
So, UCT is now “an amalgam of ‘contextualised’ ‘spaces’ entirely devoid of matter driven by ‘circumstances’.
We keep hearing about demands for and descriptions of “spaces”: “safe”, “charged” or otherwise. To learn more on this see Dean of Law Prof. Penelope Andrews’ piece: “Disagreement can become an act of love and reconciliation”. Prof. Andrews and I think that the last thing to do with members of the UCT community who disagree with one another is to isolate them. Weren’t separate “spaces” the goal of Apartheid?
One last question. Given the Executive’s statement:
“We know that many within our universities don’t feel safe to engage, which undermines the spirit of mutual tolerance and understanding.”
Why cancel a world-renowned lecture that could have brought open-minded opponents on to the same stage? Two possible answers are:
1.The Executive is most concerned about (fears?) the actions of subsets of UCT’s community bent on using intimidation and violence, rather than debate/discussion, to implement their ideologies.
2.It is, as described by some internal critics, controlled by Trump-like demagogues determined to dictate what, or what not, should happen at UCT.
I guess we just have to wait until the UCT Executive, SETT, “#RhodesMustFall students and anybody else who can control academic freedom at UCT to “ultimately” decide on the “unacceptability” this behaviour so some action might eventually be taken and the AFC’s vision can become a reality.
Otherwise, we may hear a repeat of the terrifying quote attributed to a US military officer during the Vietnam War.
"We had to destroy the village in order to save it."