1-southampton-uniAcademics hoping to hold a “delegitimising” conference on Israel have launched a legal challenge after the three-day event at Southampton University Law School was cancelled on health and safety grounds.

News that the prestigious university had pulled the plug on the convention, which was due to be held 17-19 April, was greeted with relief from British Jewish groups and the Israeli embassy, but with disdain by organisers.

It led to high drama ahead of Pesach, as lawyers raced to the High Court seeking an urgent judicial review, challenging the legality of the university’s decision. Organisers say that while protests were predicted and risks identified, the local police force had maintained that it could control the event and ensure security.

As barristers made their case, thousands signed an online petition calling for the university to uphold the principle of free speech, as 900 academics from across the world signed an open letter demanding that the event not be pulled.

News of the cancellation was welcomed by the Israeli embassy, which condemned it as an “ill-conceived conference, the goal of which was to question the legitimacy of a single state in the community of nations”. A spokesman added: “This was a clear instance of an extremist political campaign masquerading as an academic exercise…. Respecting free speech does not mean tolerating intolerance.”

Pressure to cancel the event was applied by the Board of Deputies, which said this was the “right decision”. A spokeswoman added: “This conference was never about academic freedom. It represented the opposite of free speech. It was to be an international gathering of anti-Zionists using the cover of a distinguished university to promote their view that there should never have been a Jewish state.”

Several politicians, including Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, had earlier labelled it a “one-sided diatribe” but organisers disagreed, and cried foul when it was cancelled on health and safety grounds.

“The security argument was used to rationalise a decision to cancel the conference that has been taken under public pressure of the Israeli Lobby,” said professors in a joint statement. “Freedom of speech inherently involves taking risks, and hence the presence of risk cannot be used to curtail it.”