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

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By Katie King on

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


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.