Freedom at what Price?

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Janet Heard, Media24 parliamentary editor.
Janet Heard, Media24 parliamentary editor.

There will be no academic freedom lecture at the University of Cape Town (UCT) on August 11.

But the TB Davie book that bears the name of speakers since 1959 will not be blank.

It will carry an “appropriate” entry to record vice-chancellor Max Price’s withdrawal of the invite to free speech activist Flemming Rose.

Last week’s decision to uninvite the controversial Danish cultural editor 16 months after first approaching him has split the academic fraternity and exposed ideological power play on the campus.

While some have sided with Price, many have slammed him – even those who have questioned why Rose was selected by the Academic Freedom Committee in the first place.

I was taken aback when the UCT executive intervened and rescinded the invite. Rose’s decision to publish cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad 11 years ago was insulting and blasphemous.

But being a free speech adherent within the bounds of our Constitution in post-apartheid South Africa, it would have been apt to hear him critique the issues and to hear him answer to his critics.

In his letter to the Academic Freedom Committee, Price argued that Rose’s presence would “divide and inflame” an already volatile campus.

The embattled vice-chancellor also rehashed the mantra of Rose’s critics, even though he conceded that these claims “can be contested, and the precepts of academic freedom should require us to hear him out”.

UCT had considered canning the lecture, but retaining the panel discussion that the committee had sensibly planned so that the event would not be a one-sided affair.

“However, Mr Rose is seen by many as persona non grata and while most would protest peacefully against him, we believe there is a real danger that among those offended by the cartoons, an element may resort to violence,” argued Price.

The inflamed climate – globally and in South Africa – is perhaps not ideal for such an intellectual exercise right now. It has also been enlightening to hear arguments against giving Rose a platform in the first place.

Sensitivities aside, Academic Freedom Committee chair Jacques Rousseau aptly concluded that while Price’s decision may be “understandable”, it was also “deeply regrettable”. The narrowing of university space to be informed and to contest ideas owing to fear and amid a threat of violence – or the “assassin’s veto” as Rose’s supporters put it – is deeply worrying.

The UCT fraternity has been denied an opportunity to engage with Rose, who has lampooned multiple religions. A brave crusader against self-censorship, the author of The Tyranny of Silence, has not bowed down to pressure, even at risk of death.

The ruckus about the Danish satirical publisher will subside, but the irony of Price’s vexed decision to not hear him out at the flagship academic freedom lecture will be recorded for posterity.

Heard is Media 24’s parliamentary editor

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