US-style free speech controversies arrive in Germany

Invitation of two far-right speakers to the University of Siegen has prompted protests and counter-claims of censorship

December 18, 2018
Thilo Sarrazin Presents his book 'Deutschland Schafft Sich Ab'
Source: Getty

A US-style controversy over freedom of speech on campus has gripped Germany after a philosophy professor invited two far-right speakers to give talks as part of a seminar series.

Marc Jongen, an MP and culture spokesman for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, was set to speak at the University of Siegen on 20 December.

Mr Jongen has alarmed some by railing against what he claims is a “filthy” German cultural sphere, part of a broader effort by the AfD to push back against what it sees as left-wing dominance in areas such as theatre.

Another controversial speaker, Thilo Sarrazin, a former Social Democrat politician who has turned to writing best-selling books about the threat to Germany from Muslim immigration, is set to appear in January.

The invitations have blown up into a national controversy, playing out across both conservative and left-wing media after Siegen imposed restrictions on the funds that could be used to pay for their visit. The university said that to do otherwise would send the “wrong signal” – although it stressed that it would not stop the talks going ahead.

The row signals that German universities are now also caught up in the disputes over free speech that have vexed US and UK institutions, where controversial speakers are invited to campus, triggering protests that lead to counterclaims of censorship.

Armin Beverungen, a lecturer in media studies at Siegen and part of a group of academics calling for the pair to be uninvited, said that although some have argued that the best course would be simply to ignore the speakers, “we’re getting into the territory where we need to put up a fight”.

Some on the German right were importing arguments about free speech in universities from the US, he warned. Supporters of the invitations were drawing on the “largely US-based discourse around unlimited free speech associated with the first amendment, which has no equal in Germany”, where there are restrictions on freedom of speech related to the Nazi period in particular, he argued.

Dieter Schönecker, the philosophy professor who issued the invitations, argued that there was a pattern in Germany of right-wing but not left-wing speakers being restricted from appearing on campus.

Professor Schönecker, who helped to launch the issue to national attention by penning a newspaper criticism of his university’s approach in November, said he was “aware” that there “would be trouble” following the invitations, and also acknowledged that it could play into the “victim narrative” of some right-wingers in Germany.

Since issuing the invitations, he also said he had received a barrage of accusations that he himself holds far-right views, which he fiercely denied. “I’m a Kantian,” he said. “I’m a complete liberal, I have nothing to do with these people [the far right]. I’m concerned with freedom of speech.”

His postdoctoral and PhD candidates have even written an open letter rejecting claims that he sympathises with the AfD or right-wing populists.

Although clashes over freedom of speech in German universities have not been as intense as in the UK or the US, the issue has been “building for a while” and this latest incident has inflamed the situation significantly, Professor Schönecker said.

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