International Law and the State of Israel – Public Statement
She observed that, “the Defendant (University of Southampton) made what appears on the face of it to be a perfectly rational and lawful decision on appeal against its refusal of permission for a conference to be held on its premises on 17-19 April because of concerns about security.”
She went on to say, “it is nonsense to suggest that the subject matter relates to matters of profound constitutional importance. The Claimants as the organisers, plainly have a personal interest in the outcome of the claim, and it would not be fair to an academic institution to make an order requiring it to bear its own legal costs even if it won.”
The Claimants (Professors Oren Ben-Dor and Suleiman Sharkh) were given leave to renew the application for permission to an oral hearing at the High Court, this took place on Tuesday 14 April 2015. After several hours of representations, Her Honour Judge Robinson refused permission for a judicial review and a protective costs order, and awarded costs to the University.
There were several key allegations and claims that were made in Court that have also made their way into various correspondence, that need addressing:
The Claimants made a preliminary point alleging that the University had breached its duty of candour by not producing police reports. The judge held that there was no evidence of a breach of candour on the part of the University. The University had made it clear from the outset what it had based its decision on, in the letters from the Chief Operating Officer (COO) and the Vice-Chancellor to the organisers. These letters are available below.
It was also alleged that there was a paucity of evidence of a security risk. The judge found that the starting point was the change in circumstances surrounding the conference which she saw as:
i) the changes to the anticipated nature of the conference, the conference largely represented one point of view and did not achieve the original proposed balance
ii) the full list of speakers had not been provided until early March and included controversial speakers
iii) the high risk of large demonstrations
The conference organisers response on proposed measures, i.e. that the police were capable of managing the event, did not address the University’s responsibilities for elements of public order and safety which fall within the University’s precincts and for which the University is liable.
The University had considered the advice from its very experienced Head of Security and Head of Safety & Occupational Health and information from the police. It had given consideration to whether the concerns could be overcome in other ways but the conclusion was that they could not put in place measures to ensure safety and security.
In her summation Judge Robinson noted, that there was not a shred of evidence to suggest that the University’s decision had been influenced by lobbying or correspondence from other organisations, and that the decision had been taken in good faith with a conscientious application of the duty to protect free speech.
The judge understood that the University’s decision had been taken reluctantly, but was quite satisfied that there are no arguable grounds to challenge it. The Court will publish its judgement in due course.
The University of Southampton has an excellent track record of upholding free speech and it remains committed to its legal obligation to ensure freedom of speech within the law is secured for staff, students and visiting speakers. The University intends to reflect and distil whatever it can from this experience to ensure that it can continue to effectively deliver its obligations.