A video piece by Forensic Architecture screens during the Turner Prize Photocall at Tate Britian on September 24, 2018 in London, England (photo by Mark Milan/Getty Images)

Over 200 students, faculty members, and alumni at Germany’s Rheinisch-Westfälische Technische Hochschule (RWTH) Aachen University signed an open letter published yesterday, December 12, condemning the school’s cancellation of a lecture with Forensic Architecture (FA), a research firm that investigates human rights concerns worldwide. The missive calls the decision a “violation of our academic freedom and the right to free expression” and demands an immediate reversal. It also claims that the talk’s cancellation was “political” in nature, citing FA’s multiple projects analyzing Israel’s violent occupation of Palestine.

The lecture, originally scheduled for December 11, was to feature Phoebe Walton, who works for FA sister organization Forensis, a nonprofit that investigates systemic violence. Walton was slated to discuss the 2020 killing of 23-year-old German tourist Samuel Rubin Seewald, known as Sammy Baker, at the hands of Dutch police as part of the university architecture department’s Monday Talks series. Axel Sowa, a Theory of Architecture professor, would have moderated the event.

On November 27, Sowa received a letter on behalf of a group of Jewish students asking him to disinvite Walton, warning of the potential for increased polarization within the student body regarding Israel’s ongoing assaults on Gaza. When Sowa spoke with the six Jewish students, they pointed to FA founder Eyal Weizman’s alleged support of the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Sowa met with RWTH Aachen’s Rector Ulrich Rüdiger on December 5 and was told the talk would not take place, reportedly on the grounds of a safety risk. The professor appealed the decision, but on December 8, the university told him his request had been rejected. A group of students, who wish to remain anonymous, organized an unofficial lecture with Walton on Zoom for the same day, without the involvement of Sowa.

In his cancellation notice on the Monday Talk series webpage, Sowa wrote that he had challenged the rector’s instruction because it violated his “freedom of expression” and “the right to free academic discourse.”

A representative for RWTH Aachen told Hyperallergic that a group of Jewish and Israeli students reported “hostile” incidents in the run-up to the talk including “anti-Israel and antisemitic graffiti.” Noting that Weizman “has repeatedly advocated for the BDS campaign,” the spokesperson said, “Leading representatives of BDS deny Israel’s right to exist; and the German federal and state governments criticize BDS for its antisemitic stance, urging universities not to give this movement a forum for their activities.”

“The students and the Rectorate fear that the event might indeed provide a platform for those who, like BDS, deny Israel’s right to exist,” the RWTH Achen representative continued. “It would not be appropriate to hold an event with Forensic Architecture, as a neutral, scientifically grounded critical discourse cannot be guaranteed during this sensitive and very emotional time.”

Weizman spoke to Hyperallergic about Forensis’s and FA’s research into the murder of Baker, who was killed by Dutch police while vacationing in Amsterdam in 2020. Both FA and Forensis found evidence that contradicted the police’s accounts, ultimately concluding that the officers “exacerbated the situation, rather than de-escalating it.” FA took on the Baker case after investigating police failures in the racist 2020 Hamau terror attack.

FA’s past projects include a 2019 investigation into the use of tear gas and bullets made by companies owned by former Whitney Museum board member Warren Kanders. Last year, FA released reports supporting the claim that Israeli forces intentionally targeted murdered Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and tracing Israel’s destruction of an archaeological site in Gaza.

Weizman warned of an atmosphere of oppression in Germany as Israel continues its deadly bombardment of Gaza.

“It’s a very fast descent into my notion of overt repression and harassment of all our Palestinian friends,” Weizman said. “That’s part of the entire environment right now in Germany: Nobody could say anything in solidarity with Palestinians. Nobody could actually call for a ceasefire. It is a situation in which it is impossible to speak.”

Editor’s note 12/14/23 11am EST: This article has been updated with quotes from a RWTH Aachen representative.

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.