Freedom of speech needs to be contextualised

26 July 2016 | Opinion Judy Favish.

The views and opinions expressed here are solely those of the individual authors in their private capacity; they do not represent or reflect the views, opinions or policies of the University of Cape Town or the Communication and Marketing Department.

On 29 June I was at the Ataturk airport when three attackers arrived in a taxi and began firing initially at the terminal entrance and then inside the terminal building itself. They blew themselves up after police fired back. 41 people were killed and 230 people were injured. This happened during Ramadan. The overwhelming majority of people who were killed were muslims. I was fortunate to escape as I had entered the building about 5 minutes before the shooting started. However, I certainly experienced the fear of not knowing whether I would survive the attack or not. Since then I have done a lot of thinking about the importance of understanding the factors that prompt people to become suicide bombers and what can be done to eliminate these. As a staff member working at a university I think it is particularly important to think about the particular responsibilities public universities have in this regard. As public universities we are charged with promoting the public good. As such universities have particular responsibilities to promote values which advance social and economic justice, human rights and opposition to any form of unfair discrimination or oppression on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual identity etc. In this way hopefully universities will help to produce future leaders with a commitment and competence to build more equitable social order. These values should be used to guide decision making within universities.

In line with these values I believe that the rights to academic freedom or freedom of speech are not absolute – they need to be contextualised. If there are grounds for fearing that these rights can be used to violate the rights and freedoms of others and to propagate any form of prejudice then the limitation of these rights can be justified.

Given Rose's history and the need to send strong signals that negative portrayals of muslims will not be tolerated I believe that the executive decision to withdraw the invitation was the correct one, not out of a concern for possible threats to security, but because of total opposition to the promotion of prejudice.

Judy Favish

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