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Legal academic granted permission to judicially review cancellation of controversial Southampton Law School conference

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Exclusive: Freedom of speech row over cancelled “anti-Semitic” event to hit the courts

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A professor of law has been given permission to proceed with a judicial review challenge against Southampton University.

Legal Cheek can reveal that last Wednesday professor Oren Ben-Dor was shown the green light to continue with the second such claim he has brought against the Russell Group institution.

He is being represented by barristers Shivani Jegarajah and Mark McDonald, both from Mansfield Chambers,

This is the latest step in a long-running and bitter row between Ben-Dor and the university over a controversial law school conference about the existence of Israel entitled, ‘International Law and the State of Israel: Legitimacy, Responsibility and Exceptionalism’.

Ben-Dor — along with engineering professor Suleiman Sharkh, also at Southampton — attempted to organise a three-day academic conference last year, but the uni was having none of it. They pulled the conference last April, over fears about security.

The proposed event was fraught with controversy from the start. Outspoken phone hacking lawyer Mark Lewis even threw his two cents in, suggesting that wannabe lawyers from Southampton could be looked on less favourably in the fierce bid for training contracts because of the “anti-Semitic” conference.

Last year’s convention never happened, and Ben-Dor — himself from Israel — brought a legal claim against the decision. Unfortunately for him, Mrs Justice Andrews DBE refused permission to have the decision judicially reviewed in April last year.

Fast forward to 2016, and Ben-Dor and Sharkh’s conference was once again stopped in its tracks. The professors claim that they were given the thumbs up from the Russell Group uni to run the event, but only on the condition that they foot extra security costs amounting to almost £25,000.

Unable to surpass this hurdle, the professors — once again — sought redress in the courts, in a legal battle partially crowdfunded by 135 generous backers.

There’s no doubt that the proposed conference is on a controversial subject matter, hence its polarised reaction, but academic freedom of expression is very much at stake here. The professors’ solicitor, Paul Heron from Public Interest Lawyers, summed this up when he said:

Freedom of speech, no matter the subject, is an essential pillar of a democratic society. This freedom is even more important in an academic setting.

So far, it looks like the professors are making good progress in their fight for academic freedom. Last October, Lady Justice Arden, sitting in the Court of Appeal, directed that the application be heard in the administrative court. A hearing was held last week before Mrs Justice Whipple, where permission was granted. It is understood that the judicial review will deal with both this year and last year’s cancellations.

As yet, no next hearing date has been listed.

22 Comments

Anonymous

Good stuff KK, I’m impressed!

Seriously though, isn’t it about time we accepted Freedom of Speech only stretches as far as political interests allow us to go?

(7)(5)

Just Anonymous

No.

(3)(3)

Facts

The argument was not about Freedom of Speech but the fact that the one sided conference did not offer freedom of speech by way of a reply to anyone who disagreed with the tendentious subject.

(3)(0)

Anonymous

Is Ben-Dor his real name?!?

(5)(0)

Anonymous

Yes, his name is Professor Oren Ben-Dor

(0)(0)

Anonymous

Legal fees likely to be more than 25k….

(3)(0)

Anonymous

I don’t really understand this. I specialised in PIL and did an LLM, and Israel/Palestine was an almost constant discussion on humanitarian law, statehood, refugee law, human rights, and all sorts of other things. What was it about this conference in particular that they didn’t like?

(2)(1)

Anonymoose

If I remember correctly, there were a number of allegations that it was an unbalanced conference that was in reality no more than thinly veiled anti-Semitism/anti-Zionism.

*Not my personal sentiments though. I really didn’t look far enough into it to come to any kind of opinion on the matter*

(0)(0)

Facts

The fact that it was not a “conference” but a one sided series of lectures.
By the way, who is “they”

(1)(0)

Anonymous

It would be helpful to have a summary of the dispute in the article somewhere.

(5)(0)

Anonymous

If the conference goes ahead, it will no doubt be to be the absolute credit of all those who take part in it. I imagine it will boost all their reputations immeasurably.

For that reason I fully support the judicial review.

(2)(2)

Anonymous

I still don’t understand why the conference was banned?

Many conferences are one-sided. That wouldn’t be a reason to ban it. Security can’t be a concern either. Universities often host politicians (including Israeli politicians) on campus despite massive protests.

I genuinely struggle to see why this academic conference organised by an Israeli with speakers including mainstream academics from British universities was banned.

If anything, banning it has given the conference a lot more attention than it would have got otherwise. If the event conference took place last year it wouldn’t have made the papers.

(7)(1)

David Lewis

Conference was banned last year and this year on security grounds, though the details haven’t been revealed. The theme of last year’s conference was to question the legitimacy and right to exist of the State of Israel – it wasn’t just about settlements, occupation, refugees, and other issues, but fundamentally denying the right of the Jewish people to self-determination. However, the call for papers was worded in such a way as to deter pro-Israel speakers from participating, which made it an abuse of freedom of speech. I don’t know how valid the security issues were and are, but in my view it would have been legally right to ban the conference as being in breach of section 43 of the Education (No. 2) Act 1986 requiring freedom of speech within the law. If you’re going to hold an “academic” conference which is an existential attack on a particular people and a particular state, at least be fair enough to give the other side a decent chance to present their viewpoint.

(3)(1)

Anonymous

Why can’t there be a one-sided academic conference questioning the legitimacy and right to exist of the State of Israel? We might not agree with it, we might not attend or pay any attention but banning it seems unnecessary. These sort of conferences and lectures take place all the time. I have seen far more controversial events at universities than a bunch of academics sitting around pontificating about a nation-state. The danger with banning one conference because it is “one-sided” and an “abuse of freedom of speech” is that it opens up the possibility of banning other conferences – there could be calls to ban pro-Israel conferences on the same grounds in the future.

(1)(0)

David Lewis

There can be a one-sided academic conference questioning Israel’s legitimacy and right to exist, and I don’t advocating banning a conference for that reason. The question is whether dissenting viewpoints should be invited and allowed. My argument is that they should be: which doesn’t deny the organisers’ right to hold a once-sided academic conference, but simply upholds the right of dissenting academics to have their view heard (the conference will still be one-sided even if two or three dissenting papers are read). I think there is legal authority for this in s.43 of the 1986 Act, but I accept it’s not cut and dried. Universities and academics should be debating this issue. What is happening is that conferences are being organised whose purpose is not to further academic debate but simply to propagandise and to further a particular viewpoint, and where dissenting views are effectively barred because of short deadlines and skewed calls for papers. But I have no problem with a one-sided conference as such – the issue is how to protect dissenters’ freedom of speech in those circumstances.

(3)(0)

Behindthegreen-dor

All those people out there who really need legal help but can’t get it and have to represent themselves, yet a legal academic gets “crowd-funding” for an internal argument with his employer over a conference. Are we supposed to feel sorry for him?

To make matters even worse, the word “practising” is spelt wrongly on the “Crowd Justice” website.

(2)(3)

Anonymous

I understand the solicitor and barristers representing the academics were acting pro bono, the crowd funding was to pay the university’s costs if the academics lost.

(1)(0)

Lord Lyle of Judicial Review

His real name is Ben Dover and he is being represented by Phil McCracken QC from Mansfield chambers.

Anyone know the grounds of the JR or why permission was granted?

(2)(1)

Anonymous

Freedom of speech is a wonderful thing and always worth fighting for, but this looks a bit more like a fight over the freedom to spend 25k of someone’s else money (taxpayers?)

(5)(0)

Sir Lord Dr Harley, M.A. (Oxon), Ph.D.D.D., F.R.S.A., Certificate in Swimming: 10m breaststroke (Merit) Hon. Knights Templar

I have organised more than 200 professional and academic conferences, particularly in the subject area of hereditary titles.

Top that Blacker!

(0)(0)

Deed U No

Will Mark Lewis also look on less favourably those 135+ who contributed to Crowd Funding in the fierce bid for training contracts because of the “anti-Semitic” conference. ???

(0)(0)

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