I deplore the decision by Queen’s University Belfast to cancel the international conference “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo” (“Charlie Hebdo academic conference ‘cancelled’”, 22 April), even though managers now say that they are reviewing the basis for the decision, which might allow the event to proceed.
In halting the event, Patrick Johnston, the vice-chancellor of Queen’s, reportedly cited concerns about the security of the delegates and the reputation of the university. As an invited speaker, I was especially surprised at this, because Queen’s has previously hosted events to discuss conflict, religion and the Troubles. In preparation for this conference, the organisers carried out a risk assessment and made arrangements with the university’s security personnel. The details of the event had been circulated within the Faculty of the Humanities, and the organisers had the support of the dean, as well as the authorisation of the dean of the graduate school to use the premises for the occasion.
Johnston’s alleged concern for the reputation of the university is deeply ironic, as the conference agenda includes discussion of the practice and limits of free speech. This unilateral and top-down decision does not reflect well on Queen’s. It is an act of appeasement that furthers the aims of the terrorist attack that led to the urgent need for this well-timed conference.
If free speech and democratic values are worth defending, then universities should be in the vanguard of defending them. Not doing so confirms the suspicion that higher education has little to contribute to public debate and cultural life in the UK and beyond.