Last week, the Executive Board informed Engel by email that ‘in the recent past, employees of our university have been intimidated and threatened by you or a close circle of your supporters’. In solidarity with these threatened colleagues, the Executive Board therefore withdrew the invitation. According to spokesperson Monique de Jong, the Executive Board is referring to the threats that were ‘frequently in the media’ during the coronavirus crisis. At that time, various parties including virologists from Erasmus MC received a constant stream of threats and insults from coronavirus sceptics.

Fiore Geelhoed was unwilling to comment on the Executive Board’s cancellation of Willem Engel. For a response, she simply referred to the university’s statement.

Address details released

The chair of the ‘Virus truth’ action group, who was recently convicted of incitement, was to participate in a panel that included philosopher Cees Zweistra who wrote a book about conspiracy thinking. It came as ‘no surprise’ to Zweistra that Engel’s appearance was cancelled. “In fact, I was rather surprised that he’d been invited in the first place. Of course, the afternoon is about conspiracy thinking so I suppose it is fairly logical to invite the ‘face’ of the conspiracy-minded Netherlands. But at the same time, his supporters also threatened me after the publication of my book, among other things by spreading my address details far and wide.”

According to Zweistra, you legitimise someone like Engel by letting him participate in a debate. “And that soon becomes a slippery slope, in which bona fide criticism and conspiracy thinking become wrongly intertwined.”

Jordan Peterson

Nawin Ramcharan is another panel member. He is a student member of the University Council on behalf of the student party Liberi Erasmi. He would like to hear from the Executive Board about the specific threats. “If there are indeed threats, I understand the cancellation.”

Nevertheless, he feels that there is a pattern of rejecting controversial speakers. Ramcharan’s student party had spent the past few weeks organising the conservative psychologist Jordan Peterson as a guest speaker. But this was stopped by the university, partly because it would require a lot of security measures, correspondence shows.