The University of Cape Town Executive have decided to countermand the invitation extended to Flemming Rose by the Academic Freedom Committee (AFC) to deliver the annual TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture.
While the AFC (a committee that I currently chair) has released a statement on this decision, I would like to offer some additional comment. Any views expressed here should not be assumed to be shared by anyone else, in particular other members of the AFC.
Here is the Vice Chancellor’s letter to the Academic Freedom Committee (pdf), informing us of the reasoning behind the executive’s decision to withdraw the AFC’s invitation to Mr Rose.
The AFC’s response is of course a committee document, which means that for the sake of consensus, it could not capture all views, nor the strength of particular views held by individual members.
My personal view is that the decision is understandable, albeit deeply regrettable. The security concerns are to my mind legitimate, and would entail significant expense and difficulty in ensuring a trouble-free event. At the same time, it should be recognised that these concerns are motivated by a (feared, and hypothetical) violent version of the heckler’s veto.
Therefore, all members of the UCT community, including the executive, should be united in lamenting and condemning the fact that intolerant members of that community make it the case that pragmatic concerns should override academic freedom in this instance.
Furthermore, I do not find any appeal to the Constitution and the balancing of rights, as you’ll find in Dr. Price’s statement, at all persuasive. 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 challenged, but robust debate and argument are the business of a university, and the possibility of such has been compromised by the decision to rescind the invitation.
Caricatured and inaccurate views of Mr Rose’s position have also arguably been reinforced by the university executive’s argument. Consider this example, from a Facebook post by Herman Wasserman, Professor of Media Studies in the Centre for Film and Media Studies at UCT.
Those “principled grounds” are to my mind not principled, and are also deeply misinformed. There is no obligation on anyone to respect religious beliefs – that is a matter of civility, not freedom or rights violations.
The relevant stereotype here is overwhelmingly the perception that Prof. Wasserman has of Mr Rose, rather than Mr Rose being guilty of stereotyping. Reading Mr Rose’s book, columns, or watching some of the freely available videos (such as this one, accepting the 2016 Milton Friedman Prize for Advancing Liberty, and being introduced by Nadine Strossen – previously a TB Davie speaker herself), provide clear evidence against that view.
As for hate speech, that does not simply mean speech that someone disapproves of, or even speech that someone finds hateful. There is nothing in Mr Rose’s history that meets the legal definition of hate speech, and while anyone is free to find blasphemy offensive, our country is fortunately one in which blasphemy is still legal (regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea).
What Prof. Wasserman points out are indeed reasons why some would have thought it unwise to have invited Mr Rose in the first instance. But there is a marked difference between a poorly-considered invitation (if that’s your view), and retracting an invitation.
The latter decision – withdrawing an invitation to a speaker who might be controversial, but who is certainly not the cartoon villain some think him to be – certainly is a decision made in an “actual, lived context, not in a philosophical vacuum”.
The actual, lived context here is that nobody will ever know what Mr Rose intended to say, because he wasn’t allowed to speak. In consequence, Prof Wasserman and others protect their prejudices from challenge, and we diminish the advance of reason, and the discovery of truth.