When Queen’s University cancelled a conference on the Charlie Hebdo murders, the institute that had been due to host the event said that the vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston had been “concerned about the security risk for delegates and about the reputation of the university”.
In fact, the decision to cancel the symposium did significant damage to the university’s reputation, and made it seem spineless in the face of terrorism — a failing in any seat of learning, but a particularly serious failing in a university that witnessed outrages such as its young law academic Edgar Graham being shot at point blank range by IRA gunmen.
The cancellation of the conference on the Paris massacres led to widespread, sustained and deserved criticism of QUB.
When the university said that in fact the problem had been the fact that they had not carried out a risk assessment, this editorial column asked: “Why did they not do so? Why not re-schedule when they have done so?”
We therefore applaud the fact that Queen’s has indeed done that, by carrying out “a comprehensive risk assessment” so that it “is pleased to confirm that the Charlie Hebdo Research Symposium ... has been approved”.
This is a welcome and unequivocal U-turn. People and institutions make mistakes. When they promptly reverse the error, their change of mind deserves recognition.
Free speech lies at the heart of civilisation, and yet through history it is a freedom that has been perennially under threat. The threats to free speech are apparent now, given the violence of some fanatical Islamists.
There is also a more low-level, but more widespread, threat to free speech in countries such as Britain from busybodies who are trying to make offensive or objectionable views illegal.
If universities ever cease to be at the forefront of defending free speech, then we will be in perilous times.