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The tragic irony of censoring Queen's University's Charlie Hebdo discussion

Illustration: Fiona Hanley

Censorship by the Vice Chancellor of Queen's has done far more damage to the university's reputation than an academic discussion on citizenship after Charlie Hebdo ever could

I hate to break it to you, but there’s a security risk in Northern Ireland. No, don’t stop reading just yet. I promise you it’s interesting. A threat has been issued, apparently, against that most august and liberal of institutions: Queen’s University Belfast. Well, “issued” is perhaps too strong a word. Perhaps we should go for “perceived”. Or “made up”.
No, it’s from not a dissident IRA splinter group; no, it’s not from loyalists demanding the Union Jack be flown above the campus. In fact, we don’t even know who this spectral threatening force is. What we do know, however, is that the “security risk” relates to a symposium where a bunch of academics would sit and talk about the nature of civil society after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
We know about this risk because the office of Queen’s Vice Chancellor Patrick Johnston has cancelled the symposium. He is also concerned about the risk to the reputation of the university. He should be. Now.
The symposium, entitled “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo”, doesn’t sound to me like a hotbed of radicalism or Islamophobia, so any claim of risk hinges on the threat of violence by whom, exactly? Who could possibly be offended by a good faith discussion of the fallout from such an appalling event? No-one. That’s who.
Among the participants at this conference was to be yours truly, the Ireland correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, the world’s most measured, careful and, critics (with whom I would disagree) would say, stiff newspaper. Other participants included, well, academics. It was an academic symposium, after all. As I was a putative participant there is an ethical conflict in me reporting on the matter. There is no such impediment, however, on me complaining about it, so buckle-up while I take you for a spin around the insanity that is the modern university. 
We all know about recent events at universities across the UK: shutting down a debate about abortion because it was between two men; the routine “no-platforming” of radical feminist Julie Bindel, the banning of the Sun newspaper and Robin Thicke’s pop song Blurred Lines. To that we can now add merely talking about the concept of freedom of speech. 
There you are: you are not free to speak about whether or not you are free to speak. Honestly, in this case I feel sorry for the organisers of the conference. I have only a faint notion of what the internal politics of universities are like, but this is not an isolated incident in a single institution.
These bastions of liberal education have, over the last few years at least, fallen far short of the measure. Some blame “neo-liberalism”; others “political correctness”. Both views have some merit: the transformation of the student into a consumer is a serious issue and, sadly, more and more things are simply declared unsayable for nakedly political reasons. But I am a mere reporter with pretensions toward the academy so for now I will stick to what is observable and leave the epistemology to my ballooning PhD thesis: the real problem is cowardice. 

Back to censorship as usual

I had planned to give a paper entitled “Back to censorship as usual”, arguing that after a brief, and frankly unconvincing, outpouring of support for freedom of expression we all got back to calling for more censorship, including self-censorship. In short, I was planning on standing in front of a room of people who are likely to take a dim view of what I do for a living and defend my beleaguered trade as a lodestone of civilised debate. After all, we still didn’t have a full count of the murdered journalists, not to mention shoppers in a kosher supermarket, when social media was already exploding with talk about potential Islamophobic reprisals. Perhaps we could at least mop the blood up before writing, as trendy neo-leftist Jacobin magazine did, that Charlie Hebdo was a “frankly racist publication”. 
Newspapers and magazines, love them or hate them—and I love them, despite the abusive relationship I have had with them over the past decade (many publishers have less interest in paying their bills than universities do in promoting a battle of ideas)—are a vital component of the public sphere. I include Charlie Hebdo, Jacobin and the Sun in this group, by the way, even though none of them may be to my taste. Beleaguered, in circulation decline and with readers graveyard bound they remain an essential liberal institution. An essential liberal institution like, say, the university. We can throw two-dollar words and Habermas quotes around as much as we like, but society today is lumbered with increasingly hollowed-out institutions and little commitment to the liberal, dare I say it Enlightenment, values that, despite their limitations, made us what we are today, which is, I hope, increasingly tolerant of one another. Newspapers, even satirical ones filled cartoons you may not like, are part of that.
Alas, an opportunity for a discussion about the right to publish, to be held in the halls of that other great institution, the ivory tower, has been crushed underfoot with unconvincing claims of imminent danger. Having previously lived in Belfast for over 25 years I know a thing or two about security risks. I witnessed a man shot dead in 1998, to give just one example. (His ‘crime’ wasn’t speech related, by the way; his mere existence offended someone). As a putative delegate of this dangerous symposium (an unlikely couplet if ever there was one) I was one of those apparently in need of the university's protection. I didn’t need it growing up in Belfast, so I’m rather unsure as to why things have become so decidedly unsafe in recent years.
Honestly, I have no idea what the nature of this putative “security risk” could be. Nor do I know what my scholarly colleagues were going to say. I do suspect it would have all been rather mild, though, with only myself and a few other isolated individuals standing-up for unalloyed, warts-and-all freedom of speech as not only a utilitarian good, but a categorical imperative no less. And no, that doesn’t mean you have to express every silly thought you ever have, just that there is a right to expression.

No security risk

Let’s tell the truth: there was no security risk, unless the potential for hurt feelings after a bit of shouting is now considered a matter of security, in which case I suppose we should be calling MI6 every time there’s an argument about the washing up.
The only conceivable reason this conference would be cancelled is that someone — someone like me, for instance — might say something that might upset someone else. That is what passes for reputational damage today? Back when I was knee-high to a parking meter we called that debate, and isn’t that what the university is all about?
The real reason for the cancellation was given away with the mention of reputation. What damage to Queen’s reputation could have happened, though? That it would develop a reputation for tackling difficult subjects? 
After this decision the Vice Chancellor deserves the reputation he will get.
Jason Walsh is the Ireland correspondent of the Boston-based Christian Science Monitor newspaper and a researcher at the school of philosophy at University College Dublin

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