On October 22, 2023, the University of Vermont (UVM) canceled an event at which Mohammed El-Kurd, a well-known Palestinian poet and journalist, was scheduled to speak, citing safety concerns.
The canceled event was co-sponsored by the Will Miller Social Justice Lecture Series – an independent nonprofit that brings speakers to the UVM campus and the Burlington community to provide dialogues around social, ecological and political concerns – and UVM’s English and Sociology departments. The co-sponsors had invited El-Kurd to speak at UVM months prior to the October 7 attack, according to a university spokesperson. Members of the nonprofit said they had tried to get El-Kurd to come speak on campus during the previous academic year, but that El-Kurd had been unavailable due to his busy schedule. According to materials advertising the event, El-Kurd had planned to speak about the “representation and misrepresentation of Palestinians in the U.S.”
The decision to cancel El-Kurd’s lecture occurred just two weeks after a surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 left over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals dead and more than 200 abducted, and the subsequent Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of early December, has reportedly killed more than 15,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech on campus in the United States and across the world. Against this backdrop, some current students and alumni reached out to event organizers with concerns that El-Kurd had used antisemitic language when discussing the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the past. One board member later told the media, “We reviewed his poetry, his public speeches and anything else that had been used as evidence of his antisemitism, and we rejected those charges. All of the sponsors held firm to their sponsorship.”
In the weeks leading up to the event, UVM’s College of Arts and Sciences dean William Falls expressed concerns about the impact of the event on the UVM community, but told event organizers that he supported their “freedom to host Mohammad El-Kurd,” and that he had heard nothing from higher ups in the administration about canceling the event. However, on October 20, the weekend prior to the scheduled lecture, the university’s Division for Safety and Compliance sent an email to the event organizers stating, “It is our judgment, based on global, national, and local events, that we cannot adequately provide safety and security for this event as it is currently planned.” The email did not refer to any specific threats.
On October 27, Seven Days, an independent Vermont news outlet, filed a request for access to the University’s email surrounding the event cancellation, under Vermont’s open records law, which allows any person to request access to state and governmental agencies’ records. On December 15, the university provided Seven Days with the requested documents, some of which were heavily redacted. The emails showed that there were no security threats related to the event.
The event was rescheduled and held online on November 26.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the near cancellation of an on-campus, academic event that had previously been approved due to stated security concerns. Where there are legitimate security concerns, the university is obligated to take reasonable available measures to ensure security. In the absence of such concerns, content-based restrictions on otherwise legitimate university events undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.