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 December 20.
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, a former Social Democrat politician who has turned to writing best-selling books about the threat to Germany from Muslim immigration, is set to speak 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 stresses 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.
Dieter Schonecker, the philosophy professor who issued the invitations, argues that there is a pattern in Germany of right-wing but not left-wing, speakers being restricted from appearing on campuses. Prof. Schonecker, who helped to launch the issue to national attention by penning a newspaper criticism of his university’s approach in November, says he is “aware” that there “would be trouble” following the invitations, and also acknowledges 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 denies. “I’m a Kantian,” he says. “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 Ph D 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, says Schonecker.
(Excerpted and adapted from The Economist and Times Higher Education)