Li­bel threat dropped over Libya in­quiries

The Jewish Chronicle - - News - BY MARTIN BRIGHT AND JEN­NIFER LIP­MAN ‘Peo­ple must have the right to ex­press views’

A UNIVER­SITY has dropped a li­bel ac­tion against a Con­ser­va­tive MP who crit­i­cised it for tak­ing money from Gaddafi’s Libya.

In March, Robert Hal­fon, MP for Harlow in Es­sex, pub­lished a blog post about Liver­pool John Moores Univer­sity (JMU) and con­tracts it had signed with Libyan higher ed­u­ca­tion in­sti­tu­tions.

Mr Hal­fon, the grand­son of a Libyan Jew who es­caped the coun­try in the 1960s fol­low­ing anti-Jewish pogroms, has been at the fore­front of par­lia­men­tary calls for an in­quiry into the fund­ing of Bri­tish uni­ver­si­ties by au­thor­i­tar­ian Mid­dle East­ern regimes.

The Harlow MP has now turned his at­ten­tion to Dundee and Strath­clyde uni­ver­si­ties in Scot­land, which have ad­mit­ted to tak­ing Libyan money.

Fol­low­ing free­dom o f i n f o r mati o n re­quests from Mr Hal­fon, Strath­clyde ad­mit­ted to tak­ing over £1 mil­lion in stu­dent fees from the Libyan Peo­ple’s Bu­reau (its em­bassy) and Dundee re­vealed it had taken over £700,000 from the same source. Both uni­ver­si­ties dis­closed that staff had made a num­ber of trips to Libya in re­cent years.

The with­drawal of the JMU li­bel ac­tion is likely to de­ter other uni­ver­si­ties from at­tempt­ing to ham­per Mr Hal­fon’s in­ves­ti­ga­tions.

Af­ter he was threat­ened with li­bel ac­tion by the univer­sity’s lawyers, Mr Hal­fon agreed to re­move the post on his blog but they de­manded that he also of­fer an un­qual­i­fied with­drawal and prom­ise not to re­peat the claims. They also called for a do­na­tion to the univer­sity and for Mr Hal­fon to pay its legal costs for the case. Mr Hal­fon re­fused, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an ex­pen­sive and drawn-out li­bel suit.

His lawyer, David Allen Green of Preiskel & Co, de­scribed the ac­tion of the univer­sity as “il­lib­eral, con­fused and mis­con­ceived”.

The univer­sity did not deny the links, but ar­gued ev­ery­thing was done trans­par­ently and with the back­ing of the For­eign and Com­mon­wealth Of­fice. Al­though it boasted last year of a £1.2 mil­lion con­tract with Al­fateh Med­i­cal Univer­sity in Tripoli, it now says the scheme failed to ma­te­ri­alise.

Mr Hal­fon wel­comed the de­ci­sion by JMU to drop the case. “I am a firm be­liever in free­dom of speech and peo­ple must have the right to ex­press views even if they are un­palat­able to some,” he said.

He called on uni­ver­si­ties to be care­ful as to which regimes they took money from, and added: “I hope that uni­ver­si­ties who have had deal­ings with Libya and sim­i­lar au­toc­ra­cies in the Mid­dle East will think again be­fore sign­ing con­tracts or tak­ing money.” John Kampfner, chief ex­ec­u­tive of In­dex on Cen­sor­ship, said the li­bel threat against Mr Hal­fon showed the ur­gent need for legal re­form. “That an MP can­not raise is­sues of im­mense pub­lic in­ter­est or safety with­out feel­ing the chill from our li­bel laws is in­dica­tive of how dread­ful they are,” he said. “The gov­ern­ment has com­mit­ted to in­tro­duc­ing re­forms to pro­tect free­dom of ex­pres­sion, but it must en­sure the po­ten­tial for once-in-a-gen­er­a­tion re­form is not wasted.”

Cam­paign­ing again: Hal­fon

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