On December 14, 2023, it was reported that the University of Birmingham’s administration had revoked prior approval of a “Student-Staff Listening Session” that the Law School had planned to hold about the current situation in Palestine. The cancellation of the listening session occurred after event organizers promoted the event using materials that included a watermelon emoji – a symbol of Palestinian solidarity often used as a stand-in for the Palestinian flag.
The event cancellation occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid-January, had reportedly killed more than 23,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions on campuses across the world.
A group of faculty members from the Law School whose work focuses on international and human rights law proposed holding the event on November 15 as a space for an academic discussion of the “law and how it matters in relation to the current situation in Palestine.” The faculty were required to apply for approval under the University’s Code of Practice on Freedom of Speech, despite the fact that they had not invited outside speakers; the code requires that event organizers submit a request for approval only when inviting outside speakers to university-affiliated events. It was not clear who required the hosts to request approval. The Director of Campus Services approved the talk to take place on November 22.
However, prior to the event, the university’s administration withdrew its approval. The decision reportedly came after event organizers advertised the listening session with materials that included watermelon emojis. After the event’s cancellation, the Law School dean emailed the law school to inform them that the event had not been canceled, but had been postponed “given significant concerns raised that the event would not be as inclusive as intended.” When members of the university questioned the justification, the dean amended his statement by stating that there were “significant concerns” that the event “would not provide the safe and objective space for discussion that was intended.” It is not clear if the event was rescheduled.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the cancellation of a previously approved on-campus, academic event, as well as about the restriction of a presumptively approvable academic event, based on political concerns. Higher education leaders should respect academic freedom by refraining from politically or ideologically motivated restrictions on academic activity. Politically motivated attempts to limit academic discussion and exchange undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.