Birmingham pulls Palestine event ‘because of watermelon emojis’

Inclusion of symbol of Palestinian resistance on flyer leads university to pull permission for staff-student session discussing current situation

十二月 14, 2023

An event called to discuss the current situation in Israel and Palestine has been pulled by the University of Birmingham, allegedly because of the presence of watermelon emojis on advertising materials.

Academics in the law school said permission to hold the “staff-student listening session” was rescinded owing to concerns it would not “provide the safe and objective space for discussion that was intended”.

Images of watermelons were featured on a flyer for the event, as the fruit has become a symbol of Palestinian solidarity in Israel, where public displays of the Palestinian flag are prohibited.

The local branch of the University and College Union (UCU) says in a blog post it had raised concerns with Birmingham’s vice-chancellor, Adam Tickell, due to the “apparent constraint on free speech and academic freedom that this cancellation entails”.

The post alleges that the watermelon symbol had been equated with antisemitism, and the cancellation implied to staff and students that references to solidarity with Palestine were “inherently bigoted”.

But it says the inclusion of the image on the flyer did not “communicate support for a particular political position or determine the content of the discussions that will be held”.

Academics with expertise in international and human rights law were told they were required to apply for approval to hold the event under the university’s code of practice on freedom of speech, despite no external speakers being invited to participate, the post says.

Although it was originally granted permission, this was later withdrawn “at the request of the central administration”, apparently because of the watermelon image.

“The proposed event was not a protest or rally; instead, it was a planned academic discussion of law and how it matters in relation to the current situation in Palestine,” the UCU post says. “The topics were within both the teaching and research remit of the academics involved.”

The union also objected to communications sent from the dean of the law school to students that said the event had been “postponed” because of “significant concerns raised that the event would not be as inclusive as intended”, which it said implied the organisers “would not be able to conduct a discussion on sensitive topics in law in an open and sensitive matter”. The dean later apologised and revised the message, UCU claims.

It is calling for the university leadership to clarify how event organisers will be given protection under new and longstanding protections of academic freedom of speech in future.

“Cancelling seminars or discussion events is a serious matter that should not be undertaken lightly because it constitutes a clear signal to the staff and the wider community that the activity proposed is beyond the bounds of acceptability in the eyes of the employer,” the post says.

“It therefore represents an interference with the right to freedom of expression; moreover, cancellation has a pernicious ‘chilling effect’ on free speech as staff ‘self-censor’ out of fear of being viewed negatively by their employer, their students, and the wider public.”

University of Birmingham spokesperson said: “The event has not been cancelled, it has been postponed and work is under way to agree a new date.”



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Reader's comments (2)

This is how the chilling of academic speech begins.
One would have thought that the obvious solution would be to request removal of the 'watermelon' images from the poster, if that's the genuine issue here, and carry on. Or is that too practical for those who prefer to posture & utter platitudes in stained glass attitudes rather than let academics be academics? I was always told that being an academic was "Doing the damndest with your mind, no holds barred"!