UCT withdraws invitation to controversial editor

UCT withdrew the invitation to Flemming Rose.

A decision by UCT to withdraw an invitation to Flemming Rose, the cultural editor of the Danish magazine Jyllands-Posten which in 2005 published a series of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed, has been labelled one that reflects the “limited scope of academic freedom at UCT” by the university’s Academic Freedom Committee (AFC).

On Friday July 22, UCT released a statement saying the university had given “careful and extensive thought” to the decision to withdraw the invitation to the editor to speak at this year’s TB Davie Memorial Lecture.

Gerda Kruger, executive director: communication and marketing, said the university accepted that there would always be differences of opinion on a matter such as this one, and engagement was 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,” she said.

“The UCT council executive committee and the full UCT council were of the view that the invitation should be withdrawn.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.”

Acting vice-chancellor Professor Francis Petersen said the publication of the cartoons had generated much debate and controversy globally, about 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,” he said.

“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.”

However in its own statement the AFC said that when it had extended the invitation to Mr Rose religious tolerance and the threats to education, free thought and free speech, and issues pertaining to visual representation, had been “prominent in our deliberations”.

“Mr Rose was chosen as an eminently qualified candidate to speak on those matters. Some members of the UCT community took a different view and insisted that the AFC should rescind its invitation to Mr Rose on the grounds that he is a controversial speaker who could provoke protest and even violence,” the AFC said.

“Academic freedom is severely compromised when security and other pragmatic considerations preclude inviting speakers who – while controversial – in no way violate our constitutional limitations on free speech. In light of the expected protest against Mr Rose’s appearance, we had also 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.”

The AFC thus refused to rescind the invitation, and was subsequently instructed by the Vice-Chancellor Dr Max Price on behalf of the university executive, that it would not be permitted to bring Mr Rose onto the campus.

“There will thus be no TB Davie Academic Freedom Memorial Lecture in 2016. The book which bears the name of each TB Davie speaker since 1959 will carry an appropriate entry for 2016 reflecting this development.”

Meanwhile, Hamza Tzortzis will present a lecture, “Da’wah Power”, on Saturday July 30 and Sunday July 31 at the PD Hahn Building from 8am to 6pm.

Tzortzis is a member of the Islamic Education and Research Academy and is known in the UK for holding radical Islamic views.