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Charlie Hebdo: Craven Queen University's needs a lesson in free speech

By Fionola Meredith

Published 24/04/2015

Security officers escort released hostages after they stormed a kosher market to end a hostage situation, Paris, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. Explosions and gunshots were heard as police forces stormed a kosher grocery in Paris where a gunman was holding at least five people hostage. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
Security officers escort released hostages after they stormed a kosher market to end a hostage situation, Paris, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. Explosions and gunshots were heard as police forces stormed a kosher grocery in Paris where a gunman was holding at least five people hostage. (AP Photo/Michel Euler)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 09: People are led away from the scene as Police mobilize with reports of a hostage situation at Port de Vincennes on January 9, 2015 in Paris, France. According to reports at least five people have been taken hostage in a kosher deli in the Port de Vincennes area of Paris. A huge manhunt for the two suspected gunmen in Wednesday's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine has entered its third day. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 09: Police are mobilized with reports of a hostage situation at Port de Vincennes on January 9, 2015 in Paris, France. According to reports at least five people have been taken hostage in a kosher deli in the Port de Vincennes area of Paris. A huge manhunt for the two suspected gunmen in Wednesday's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine has entered its third day. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
Said and Cherif Kouachi "are ready for martyrdom", police sources claim (Judicial Police of Paris/PA)
Police officers stop a car at a check point on January 9, 2015 outside Longpont, France. A huge manhunt for the two suspected gunmen in Wednesday's deadly attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine has entered its third day. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
Ambulances arrive in Dammartin-en-Goele, northeast Paris, as part of an operation to seize two heavily armed suspects, Friday, Jan. 9, 2015. French security forces swarmed a small industrial town northeast of Paris Friday in an operation to capture a pair of heavily armed suspects in the deadly storming of a satirical newspaper. Shots were fired as the brothers stole a car in the early morning hours, said a French security official, who could not immediately confirm reports of hostages taken or deaths later in the day in the town of Dammartin-en-Goele, about 40 kilometers (25 miles) northeast of Paris. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Ambulances gather in the street outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 08: People lay flowers and candles at the Place de la Republique at midday in solidarity with victims of yesterday's terrorist attack on January 8, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo on January 7. (Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images)
An injured person is transported to an ambulance after a shooting, at the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Mourners hold signs depicting victim's eyes during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper that fell victim to an terrorist attack, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at Union Square in New York. French officials say 12 people were killed when masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the periodical that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners gather during a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper that fell victim to an terrorist attack, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at Union Square in New York. French officials say 12 people were killed when masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the periodical that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
Mourners attend a rally in support of Charlie Hebdo, a French satirical weekly newspaper that fell victim to an terrorist attack, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015, at Union Square in New York. French officials say 12 people were killed when masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the periodical that had caricatured the Prophet Muhammad. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)
A candle is lit near a paper with the written words "I am Charlie" in french at a vigil in front of the French Embassy following the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in Berlin, Germany. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Carsten Koall/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: A woman holds a candle during a gathering at the Place de la Republique (Republic square) in support of the victims after the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Thierry Chesnot/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 07: People hold pens aloft during a vigil in Trafalgar Square for victims of the terrorist attack in Paris on January 7, 2015 in London, United Kingdom. Twelve people were killed including two police officers as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Rob Stothard/Getty Images)
Video footage appears to show two gunmen shooting a policeman on the footpath outside the Paris office of Charlie Hebdo
Stephane Charbonnier also known as Charb , the publishing director of the satyric weekly Charlie Hebdo, displays the front page of the newspaper as he poses for photographers in Paris. Masked gunmen shouting Allahu akbar! stormed the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper Wednesday Jan.7, 2015, killing 12 people including Charb, before escaping. It was France's deadliest terror attack in at least two decades. (AP Photo/Michel Euler, File)
Charlie Hebdo bloodbath: An injured person is evacuated outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office in Paris following a shooting at the French satirical newspaper. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
French soldiers patrols next to the Eiffel Tower after a shooting at a French satirical newspaper, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. France reinforced security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation after masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
Forensic officers at the scene at a police station on Montrose Street in Clydebank, Scotland, where a woman apparently set herself on fire.
Screen grabbed image taken from Instagram of posts featuring #JeSuisCharlie as social media users showed their support for satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo following today's bloody attack in France.
People stand outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office after a shooting, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
Police officers arrive at the scene after gunmen stormed a French newspaper, killing at least 12 peoplet, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)
A man lights a candle during a demonstration in solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of the weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Kosovo capital Pristina, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the the satirical newspaper methodically killing at least 12 people Wednesday, including the editor, before escaping in a car. It was France's deadliest postwar terrorist attack. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Said Kouachi (left) and Cherif Kouachi, the two prime suspects in the Paris terror attack
The two gunmen brandishing assault rifles on a Paris street after their attack on the magazine offices
People gather at Union Square in reaction to the terrorist attack on French newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 07, 2015 in New York City. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, after gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
People gather at Union Square in reaction to the terrorist attack on French newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 07, 2015 in New York City. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, after gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Yana Paskova/Getty Images)
People hold a vigil at the Place de la Republique (Republic Square) for victims of the terrorist attack, on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
People gather around candles and pens at the Place de la Republique (Republic square) in support of the victims after the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. (Photo by Aurelien Meunier/Getty Images)
People hold up pens and posters reading 'I am Charlie' in French as they take part in a vigil of people, including many who were French, to show solidarity with those killed in an attack at the Paris offices of weekly newspaper Charlie Hebdo, in Trafalgar Square, London, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the Paris offices of a weekly newspaper that caricatured the Prophet Muhammad, methodically killing 12 people Wednesday, including the editor, before escaping in a car. It was France's deadliest postwar terrorist attack. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)
A French soldier patrols at the Montparnasse railway station in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. France reinforced security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation after masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
French forensic experts and Police officers examine evidence outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 12 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Forensic experts examine the car believed to have been used as the escape vehicle by gunmen who attacked the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo)
A bullet impact is seen in a window of a building next to the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen shouting "Allahu akbar!" stormed the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 12 people, including the paper's editor, before escaping in a getaway car. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus)
People hug each other outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)
French soldiers patrols at the Eiffel Tower after a shooting at a French satirical newspaper, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. France reinforced security at houses of worship, stores, media offices and transportation after masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
French President Francois Hollande, center, flanked with security forces gestures, as he arrives outside the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo's office, in Paris, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Masked gunmen stormed the offices of a French satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing at least 11 people before escaping, police and a witness said. The weekly has previously drawn condemnation from Muslims. (AP Photo/Remy De La Mauviniere)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Signs saying 'Je suis Charlie' are held up as crowds gather at 'Place de la Republique' for a vigil following the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: People hold signs saying 'Je suis Charlie' as crowds gather at 'Place de la Republique' for a vigil following the terrorist attack earlier today on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the offices of the French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. (Photo by Marc Piasecki/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 07: People light candles on a Charlie Hebdo Magazine during a gathering of people showing their support for the victims of the terrorist attack at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the Consulate of France on January 7, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 07: People hold pencils up during a gathering of people showing their support for the victims of the terrorist attack at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the Consulate of France on January 7, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
BARCELONA, SPAIN - JANUARY 07: People gather showing their support for the victims of the terrorist attack at French magazine Charlie Hebdo, in front of the Consulate of France on January 7, 2015 in Barcelona, Spain. Twelve people were killed, including two police officers, as two gunmen opened fire at the magazine offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris, France. (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Police officers evacuate dead bodies at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in Nicolas Appert street on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Ambulances and police officers gather in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Ambulances and police officers gather in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: French Prime Minister Manuel Valls (C) arrives at the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
PARIS, FRANCE - JANUARY 07: Ambulances and police officers gather in front of the offices of the French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo on January 7, 2015 in Paris, France. Armed gunmen stormed the offices leaving twelve dead, including two police officers, according to French officials. (Photo by Antoine Antoniol/Getty Images)
French President Francois Hollande leaves the Elysee Palace after a shooting at a French satirical newspaper, in Paris, France, Wednesday, Jan. 7, 2015. Police official says 11 dead in shooting at French satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. (AP Photo/Christophe Ena)
The scene in Paris, France, after ten people were shot dead in an attack at the offices of a French satirical magazine which angered some Muslims after publishing crude caricatures of Islam's Prophet Mohammed, according to reports. Pic Twitter/@Lestatmp

We are exceptional, says the embarrassingly boastful Queen's University Belfast slogan. After the decision to cancel a conference about the Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris, Queen's had better get on the phone to the PR men who come up with this guff for them, no doubt at great expense. In the meantime, here's some (free) suggestions from me. We are exceptionally lily-livered. We are exceptionally short-sighted. We are exceptionally censorious. Or how about all three?

Queen's should spend less time thinking about vacuous ways of branding and selling itself, and a lot more time thinking about the fundamental nature of a university, and what it's there to do.

The Vice-Chancellor, Paul Johnston, cited concerns about "the security risk for delegates" and "the reputation of the university" as his reasons for banning the event, which was called Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo.

Okay. Let's take the security concerns first. Are we really being asked to believe that an obscure academic symposium on the societal implications of the Paris attack, held in a provincial university, is a magnet for global jihad? That the very mention of the dread words 'Charlie Hebdo' is enough to attract the negative attentions of any passing suicide bomber? Few people, outside the delegates themselves, would have even heard of this event, if the Vice-Chancellor had not had such an unseemly panic reaction. Now, the whole world has, but for very different, and badly damaging, reasons.

The part that really disturbs me is this question of the imperilled reputation of the university, were the event to go ahead. What on earth can Professor Johnston mean? Is it now considered academically disgraceful to debate controversial topics? Is this what we have come to, that the practice of free speech is now regarded as an indelible black mark on an institution's name?

Look, I love my beautiful alma mater. I spent almost 10 years at Queen's, first as an undergraduate, and then as an MA and PhD student. My children were born while I was studying there, and I never walk through the quad without feeling a deep sense of connection to the place. Here I was taught to grapple with difficult, complex, contradictory ideas - "the collision of adverse opinions", as John Stuart Mill had it - and to weigh them up dispassionately. I was taught how to sharpen and hone my intellect, and to react with curiosity, not offence and horror, when confronted with uncomfortable beliefs antithetical to my own. That is what a university is for, after all. It's a vital space where the pursuit of knowledge is valued for its own end, without fear or favour, or at least it should be. That is why the moral and intellectual cowardice of the current administration, in banning this event, is so shocking.

Delegates themselves have also reacted with incredulity. Brian Klug, an Oxford professor of philosophy, declared himself "baffled" and "dismayed" by the decision to cancel. He said the conference organisers were actually setting "an excellent example of how academia should respond to complex conflicts in the public sphere. They deserve to be fully supported by their university - not to have the rug pulled out from under their feet".

It's true that in lurching to the default mode of 'if in doubt, ban it', Queen's is not alone. A no-platform policy is increasingly in evidence at many universities in Britain and Ireland. Originally intended to silence fascists, it now seems to serve as a means of preventing anyone with controversial views from being heard, often on the dubious grounds that universities have a duty of care to protect students and staff from 'hate speech'. To capitulate to this nonsense is to treat people like children, not sentient adults who have the capacity to make their own judgments about what is right and wrong.

And we are now seeing the absurd consequences of such mollycoddling. At a recent NUS women's conference in England, there were requests for no clapping after the speeches, because it was "triggering anxiety" in some delegates. Yes, really. If people consider themselves too vulnerable and delicate to cope with the sound of appreciative applause, no wonder they find the idea of actively offensive speech more overwhelming than they can bear.

Which is why universities should not be running away from free speech shrieking like a girl, but taking every opportunity to support, encourage and protect it. For if these great liberal bastions don't man up, who will?

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