On April 15, 2019, officials at the University of Blida reportedly blocked Mostefa Bouchachi, a prominent public intellectual and human rights defender, from entering campus to speak at a conference on political developments in Algeria.
The university’s action occurred against the backdrop of frequently student-led protests across Algeria, which have been ongoing since February 2019, when the country’s president of 20 years, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, announced his intention to run for a fifth term in office. Although Bouteflika reversed his decision to run on April 2, students have continued demonstrating for broader democratic change. While the protests, sometimes referred to as the “revolution of smiles,” have been largely nonviolent, they have reportedly been met recently with violent force, arrests, and intimidation by Algerian authorities.
Bouchachi, an Algerian thought leader who has both influenced and promoted the “revolution of smiles,” was invited to the University of Blida to speak about recent political events. On the day the event was to be held, Bouchachi attempted to enter the university’s auditorium, but was blocked by security guards, who told him they had received orders from university administrators not to allow him to speak to a large audience of students and teachers. Media reports have suggested that the decision was made out of concern about the government’s potential response to an event involving Bouchachi, particularly given recent crackdowns against student protesters.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the decision to exclude an invited speaker from a university event, based apparently on concern that it will provoke a negative response by government officials. University authorities have a responsibility to take all reasonably available measures to ensure a free, safe university space; state authorities likewise must refrain from actions which limit the right to free expression and association on campus. Beyond the immediate harm done to the victim, such actions undermine academic freedom and institutional autonomy.