Flemming Rose and Academic Freedom by Elisa Galgut

17 Aug 2016
Flemming Rose and Academic Freedom by Elisa Galgut

This is one in a series of articles responding to UCT’s decision to rescind an invitation to Danish journalist and writer, Flemming Rose, to give the TB Davie lecture on Academic Freedom. PEN SA President Margie Orford spoke about the matter here and called for responses, all of which can be found here.

By Elisa Galgut

As a member of PEN SA and the University of Cape Town, and as a former member of the UCT Academic Freedom Committee, I deplore the UCT Executive’s decision to disinvite Flemming Rose from delivering the annual TB Davie lecture on academic freedom. The Executive presented a number of arguments to the UCT Academic Freedom Committee in May 2016, none of which the AFC found compelling, and the AFC thus refused to rescind its invitation to Mr Rose. The UCT Exec chose to override the AFC’s decision and disinvite Mr Rose anyway.

In his defence of the Executive’s decision, Max Price, the Vice Chancellor, claimed that “Mr Rose is seen by many as a persona non grata” who 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.” These claims against Mr Rose are ad hominem attacks with no basis. For all its talk of ‘context’, the UCT Executive failed to take account of Mr Rose’s reasons for publishing the now-infamous Danish cartoons*. Mr Rose’s decision to publish the cartoons was made in an atmosphere of what he described as “self censorship” – “Our goal”, he said, “was simply to push back self-imposed limits on expression that seemed to be closing in tighter.”

The claim that “South Africa and its universities are at a critical juncture in terms of defining themselves and how their freedoms are exercised” is even more reason to have invited Mr Rose. If censorship of unpopular or contentious views is permitted, universities will indeed transform – not into institutions where critical thinking and argument are valued, but rather into places where speech is restricted, where rhetoric replaces argument, and where ad hominem insults replace genuine engagement with those with whom one disagrees. We are already witnessing the beginnings of an insidious censorship – artworks have been removed from campuses around the country as well as at UCT; those who disrupt lectures, or who remove exhibits they don’t like, are not sanctioned. It is precisely because universities are at a critical juncture that liberal principles, which include academic freedom, must be strongly defended. Are we to bar the likes of Salman Rushdie from speaking? It is all very well to defend the principles of academic freedom and free speech when they are not under attack – that is an easy victory. The real test of our commitment to these principles is when it is difficult. The ground, once lost, is very difficult to regain.

During the day days of apartheid, academic freedom was threatened from without; now, the threats are internal to universities – and they all the more threatening for that.

Elisa Galgut is a poet and teaches in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town.