Opinion // The Sacrifice of Free Speech

January, 01 2015
Free Speech Equal or not equal

 By curtailing anti-Israel viewpoints, colleges are favoring “comfort” over freedom.

by Marshall Breger

It was not so long ago that Jewish communal organizations were among the strongest supporters of free speech in the United States. But we have lately entered a new era in which the Jewish community balances its commitment to free speech against its commitment to Israel—and First Amendment values are too often found wanting.

This is particularly true on college campuses where Jewish organizations and students have urged restrictions on the activities of Palestinian activists because their aggressive advocacy makes Jewish students feel “unwelcome.” Thus, when Palestinian activists placed a large poster in the Wellesley dining hall asking “What does Zionism mean to you?” and providing a white space for students to respond, Jewish activists claimed that the poster made them feel “unsafe.” When Jewish students at Barnard woke to see a pro-Palestinian banner hung in front of a campus building, they claimed “emotional distress.”

Consider the controversial case of Steven Salaita, whose virulently anti-Israel tweets led University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Chancellor Phyllis Wise to rescind an offer of appointment to a tenured position in Native American studies. There are many valid reasons why one might not want to offer Salaita a position, but my review of over 240 pages of letters to the chancellor (most from the Jewish community) suggested some surprising tropes. Students claimed they “would feel threatened to be in a classroom, let alone on campus with him.” Others feared “for the safety of students in [his] classroom.” Still others, painting on a broader canvas, claimed that his very presence on campus would make students feel “unsafe or unwelcome” or “uncomfortable.”

The notion of feeling unsafe because you know that an anti-Israel professor (even a virulent one) walks on a college campus is passing strange. Do the Jewish students mean they feel physically unsafe? If the fear were objectively reasonable, it would certainly be cause for firing a professor and even for restricting Palestinian activism. But the context in which the Jewish students complain makes clear that they mean emotionally unsafe—that their comfort zone has been invaded.

There was once a time when the point of education was to move students out of their “comfort zone.” Indeed, the right to offend has often been at the core of the idea of free speech.

Concomitant with the need for “comfort zones” is the increasing use of the call for civility as an argument for regulating or censoring speech. University leadership justified rescinding the Salaita job offer on the grounds that theirs was a community “that values civility as much as scholarship.”

Civility is, of course, an important virtue, one vital to maintaining both social relations at universities and a vibrant civil society. But as Katherine M. Franke, a Columbia Law School professor, has noted, civility has become “a catchword for a kind of censorship of speech that makes us feel uncomfortable.”

Another feature of this need for a comfort zone is that the traditional distinction between public and private conduct seems to have collapsed. In the past we have had examples of campus speech, such as those of Arthur Butz, a tenured associate professor of electrical engineering at Northwestern University, who in his private life denied the Holocaust. While Jewish groups demanded he be fired, Northwestern explained that as long as these were his private opinions and did not bleed into his teaching, he was protected by academic freedom. Eventually the controversy settled down.

It may well be that Salaita’s extreme anti-Israel views would bleed over into his classes. That is a great reason for not giving him a job. But in the discussions I saw, no one seems to have explored whether this is the case—for instance, by discussing his student evaluations at his prior school, Virginia Tech, or indeed asking what Jewish students at Virginia Tech said about him.

That Jewish students on campus need to wrap themselves in a comfort zone is not surprising. The American Jewish community has restricted open debate on core issues for so long that young people are not prepared to deal with different narratives, let alone with aggressive “in their face” criticism. When students at the Ramaz Jewish day school in New York invited a Palestinian professor and activist to talk to them about his views of the Arab-Israeli conflict, school administrators shut down the meeting on the grounds that the students were too young to hear him. If high school seniors are kept in such a cocoon, how does one expect them to deal with the challenges of a pluralist campus one year later? And when they reach campus, their campus Hillels keep them in their comfort zone. Bizarrely, the University of North Carolina Hillel placed restrictions on a showing of The Gatekeepers, the Oscar-nominated documentary film in which six ex-Mossad chiefs discussed the Arab-Israeli conflict. And the Harvard Hillel in 2013 barred Avraham Burg—a former speaker of the Knesset!—from speaking in their building because his talk was co-sponsored by a Palestinian organization.

The demand to stay within one’s comfort zone is not limited to Jews in the United States. In the name of Zionism, ultra-right-wing groups such as Im Tirtzu have tried to shut down academic freedom on Israeli campuses, and the political science department at Ben-Gurion University was almost closed by authorities in 2012 for its allegedly intellectually subversive activities—in other words, intellectual dissent.

We may well be seeing a transformative change in our cultural approach to free speech throughout society. As Greg Lukianoff has suggested, when students “expect emotional and intellectual comfort as though it were a right,” they will eventually “stop demanding freedom of speech and start demanding freedom from speech.” It is unfortunate that the Jewish communal institutions are in the vanguard of these developments. A confident and informed Jewish community can make a successful case for Israel without curtailing free speech and open debate.

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2 thoughts on “Opinion // The Sacrifice of Free Speech

  1. Michael Brenner says:

    While I generally sympathize with the sentiments of this piece, the notion that Jewish groups are in the vanguard of this movement on campus is wrong. There are many groups who take this approach, most more visibly than the Jewish community, with much greater attention from college administrators.

  2. Alan J Weisbard says:

    I wouldn’t have expected to agree with an official from the Reagan Administration on very much. But with this commentary, Marshall Breger hits it out of the park.
    BTW, in my web commentaries on the Salaita Affair, I focused precisely on whatever could be found on Salaita’s behavior in the classroom, and in particular on his openness to opposing views. While I found Salaita’s comments on twitter, and in some of his published “scholarship”, to be disgusting and reprehensible, I found no public evidence that he was discriminatory in the classroom. I can imagine students being deterred from signing up for his classes–I would hardly find his public comments or activities on behalf of BDS welcoming were I an undergraduate–but hard evidence of improper pedagogy did not present itself. While Salaita supporters contend that he was fired for his politics, my own suspicion is that he was, in fact, more likely hired for his politics. But perhaps that is an argument for another day. On today’s topic, Breger is right to defend free speech, and to call out Jewish organizations that abridge open debate in the service of “comfort.” One critical role for universities –and for campus organizations like Hillel–in a democratic society is precisely to challenge “comfortable” beliefs. We may well be failing in that task.

    The writer is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin Law School. His teaching included a course on Jewish Law and Ethics.

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