Earlier this week, it was sadly announced that Queen’s University Belfast would be canceling an academic conference on the Charlie Hebdo attacks over security concerns as well as the potentially negative reputation that the University would garner by holding such a symposium.
The point of the conference was not only to discuss the attacks that left twelve people dead, but also the implications of the attack on both the magazine itself as well as the larger global journalistic and academic communities. Citing a requirement to manage “the health and safety of the institution,” a spokesperson for the University stated that “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 is not the first time security concerns have led public institutions to removing exhibits or canceling events for fear of negative repercussions against the institutions themselves. Earlier this year, the Victoria & Albert Museum in England publicly denied and hid a devotional portrait of the prophet Mohammad that they had in their possession. In Finland, it took three attempts before the Finnish Cartoon Society could find a home for their “Minä olen Charlie” (“I am Charlie”) exhibit — several locations refused to house the exhibit for fear of the reprisals and community backlash.
In response to the Queen’s University announcement, several Belfast natives have spoken out about how that they feel about their town and this public institution having this kind of mentality and fear. As Robert McLiam Wilson, a writer for Charlie Hebdo, wrote:
I am feeling a touch of shame today. Cancelling such an event in the face of putative menace in a city that endured a 30-year torture of self-immolation seems worse than pusillanimous. Belfast? Seriously? This is not the city I remember. This cancellation says, with trumpeting clarity, that there is no debate because there can be no debate. There is a big boat that can’t be rocked.
Public institutions are supposed to be the spaces where this kind of conversation can be had; where students and community members alike shouldn’t be afraid of speaking out about such horrific events and what they say about the current state of the world and free speech. More than the fear of the unspecified security concerns, though, what is most upsetting about this cancellation at Queen’s University Belfast is the fact that the institution publicly admitted that they canceled the event to protect the University’s reputation, as if by having a symposium on the Charlie Hebdo attacks the University will be looked down upon and criticized.
Belast blogger Alan Meban sums up exactly the problem with this kind of thinking:
QUB has outposts internationally and perhaps there are fears for the security of staff and students. However, QUB’s reference to ‘reputation’ in their cancellation implies a worry about their ability to attract funding from overseas investors, particularly international students who pay premium fees.
We need our universities to stand up for learning, reflection and free speech, rather than being bound up by bursars and budgets.
The fact that the University sacrificed potential discussion to save face and reputation points to a larger global issue about how free speech is still regarded as something that can be regulated and censored if the ulterior agenda is perceived to be more important.
Contributing Editor Caitlin McCabe is an independent comics scholar who loves a good pre-code horror comic and the opportunity to spread her knowledge of the industry to those looking for a great story!