Free speech bat­tles hit Ger­man cam­puses

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - david.mat­[email protected]­ere­d­u­ca­tion.com

A US-style con­tro­versy over free­dom of speech on cam­pus has gripped Ger­many af­ter a phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor in­vited two far- right speak­ers to give talks as part of a sem­i­nar se­ries.

Marc Jon­gen, an MP and cul­ture spokesman for the far-right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) party, was set to speak at the Uni­ver­sity of Siegen on 20 De­cem­ber.

Mr Jon­gen has alarmed some by rail­ing against what he claims is a “filthy” Ger­man cul­tural sphere, part of a broader ef­fort by the AfD to push back against what it sees as left-wing dom­i­nance in ar­eas such as theatre.

An­other con­tro­ver­sial speaker, Thilo Sar­razin (pic­tured above), a for­mer So­cial Demo­crat politi­cian who has turned to writ­ing best-sell­ing books about the threat to Ger­many from Mus­lim im­mi­gra­tion, is set to ap­pear in Jan­uary.

The in­vi­ta­tions have blown up into a na­tional con­tro­versy, play­ing out across both con­ser­va­tive and left- wing me­dia af­ter Siegen im­posed re­stric­tions on the funds that could be used to pay for their visit. The uni­ver­sity said that to do other­wise would send the “wrong sig­nal” – although it stressed that it would not stop the talks go­ing ahead.

The row sig­nals that Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties are now also caught up in the dis­putes over free speech that have vexed US and UK in­sti­tu­tions, where con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers are in­vited to cam­pus, trig­ger­ing protests that lead to coun­ter­claims of cen­sor­ship.

Ar­min Beverun­gen, a lec­turer in me­dia stud­ies at Siegen and part of a group of aca­demics call­ing for the pair to be un­in­vited, said that although some have ar­gued that the best course would be sim­ply to ig­nore the speak­ers, “we’re get­ting into the ter­ri­tory where we need to put up a fight”.

Some on the Ger­man right were im­port­ing ar­gu­ments about free speech in uni­ver­si­ties from the US, he warned. Sup­port­ers of the in­vi­ta­tions were draw­ing on the “largely US-based dis­course around un­lim­ited free speech as­so­ci­ated with the first amend­ment, which has no equal in Ger­many”, where there are re­stric­tions on free­dom of speech re­lated to the Nazi pe­riod in par­tic­u­lar, he ar­gued.

Di­eter Schö­necker, the phi­los­o­phy pro­fes­sor who is­sued the in­vi­ta­tions, ar­gued that there was a pat­tern in Ger­many of right-wing but not left-wing speak­ers be­ing re­stricted from ap­pear­ing on cam­pus.

Pro­fes­sor Schö­necker, who helped to launch the is­sue to na­tional at­ten­tion by pen­ning a news­pa­per crit­i­cism of his uni­ver­sity’s ap­proach in Novem­ber, said he was “aware” that there “would be trou­ble” fol­low­ing the in­vi­ta­tions, and also ac­knowl­edged that it could play into the “vic­tim nar­ra­tive” of some right-wingers in Ger­many.

Since is­su­ing the in­vi­ta­tions, he also said he had re­ceived a bar­rage of ac­cu­sa­tions that he him­self holds far-right views, which he fiercely de­nied. “I’m a Kan­tian,” he said. “I’m a com­plete lib­eral, I have noth­ing to do with these peo­ple [the far right]. I’m con­cerned with free­dom

of speech.”

His post­doc­toral and PhD can­di­dates have even writ­ten an open let­ter re­ject­ing claims that he sym­pa­thises with the AfD or right-wing pop­ulists.

Although clashes over free­dom of speech in Ger­man uni­ver­si­ties have not been as in­tense as in the UK or the US, the is­sue has been “build­ing for a while” and this lat­est in­ci­dent has in­flamed the sit­u­a­tion sig­nif­i­cantly, Pro­fes­sor Schö­necker said.

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