Danish editor sparks free speech row in South Africa
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Cape Town, but, because the university’s administration considers him to be ‘a security risk’, his invitation has been rescinded.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Price’s letter cites three main reasons for the rescinded invitation.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.
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