23 Apr 2015

Anger as Queen’s University cancels Charlie Hebdo event

Queen’s University Belfast denies cancelling a symposium on the Charlie Hebdo attacks over concerns about reputational damage, telling Channel 4 News the event had not been properly risk-assessed.

Queen's University, Belfast (Getty Images)

The university faced claims of seeking to avoid supposed bad PR by refusing to host the symposium, entitled: “Understanding Charlie: New perspectives on contemporary citizenship after Charlie Hebdo“.

But it has insisted that its only concern was for health and safety, telling Channel 4 News that the event’s organisers had failed to file the requisite risk assessment. The spokesman said there was no issue related to “academic freedom”.

The conference organisers should be supported in their attempts to discuss this issue, with extra security if necessary
Angela Nagle, academic

The spokesman said: “As part of managing the health and safety of the institution, it is a requirement for all major events to have a full risk assessment completed prior to them going ahead on the campus.

“Unfortunately, the proposed symposium organised by the Institute for Collaborative Research in the Humanities did not have a completed risk assessment and, as a result, the Institute has cancelled the event.

“This issue is not related to academic freedom and Queen’s continues to uphold the importance of academic freedom in a world-class institution and has demonstrated this over many years.”

Read more on the Charlie Hebdo attack and its aftermath

Baffled and dismayed

The comments came after reports that the event had been cancelled at the behest of the university vice chancellor Patrick Johnston.

The Little Atoms news website reported that speakers were told by email: “The Vice Chancellor at Queen’s University Belfast has made the decision just this morning that he does not wish our symposium to go ahead. He is concerned about the security risk for delegates and about the reputation of the university.”

It seems unlikely that academic conferences would be a particular jihadi target. Angela Nagle

One of the speakers, Oxford University’s Dr Brian Klug, told the site: that he was “baffled” and “dismayed” by the cancellation.

He said: “I don’t understand either of his concerns. The second – the reputation of the university – strikes me as ironic, as his action does not exactly reflect well on Queens.”

Read more: Lyon after Charlie Hebdo - synagogues 'virtual fortresses'

‘Cowardly bureaucracy’

Angela Nagle, who was due to attend the symposium, told Channel 4 News: “The academic response in general to the Charlie Hebdo attacks has been highly critical of the magazine, often regarding it as covertly Islamophobic, so it does seem unlikely that academic conferences would be a particular jihadi target.

“The conference organisers should be supported in their attempts to discuss this issue, with extra security if necessary, but instead have been shut down by a cowardly university bureaucracy.

“There is already an atmosphere of self-censorship and intellectual conformity in universities. Instead, they should be leading the way in creating an environment where the free exchange of ideas is encouraged.”

12 people died in an attack on the Paris offices of Charlie Hebdo on 7 January 2015. Two days later, a hostage taker and four hostages were killed after a siege at a Jewish supermarket in eastern Paris.

The Charlie Hebdo attack prompted worldwide expressions of support for the satirical magazine. The phrase “Je suis Charlie” was subsequently adopted, in reaction to the shootings, by supporters of free speech.

In a further statement today the University declared that “contrary to widespread comment” the Vice-Chancellor, Professor Patrick Johnston wishes to reiterate his “commitment to academic freedom”.

“Queens is, and will remain, a place where difficult issues can be discussed.”

The University has now commissioned a full risk assessment to be completed to be completed by Friday 1 May 2015. The report will then inform the University’s decision.