Brooklyn College Political Science Department Denies Equal Free Speech and Academic Freedom to Pro-Israel Students and Faculty
by Alan Dershowitz
The international campaign to delegitimate Israel by subjecting the Jewish state—and the Jewish State alone—to boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) has now come to the most unlikely of places: Brooklyn College. The political science department of that college has voted to co-sponsor a campaign event at which only pro-BDS speakers will advocate a policy that is so extreme that even the Palestinian Authority rejects it.
The poster for the BDS event specifically says that the event is being “endorsed by…the political science department at BC.” The BDS campaign accuses Israel of “Apartheid” and advocates the blacklisting of Jewish Israeli academics, which is probably illegal and certainly immoral. The two speakers at the event deny Israel’s right to exist, compare Israel to the Nazis and praise terrorist groups such as Hamas and Hezbollah.
The president of Brooklyn College claims that this co-sponsorship does not constitute an endorsement by the college and that this is an issue of freedom of speech and academic freedom. But when a department of a university officially co-sponsors and endorses an event advocating BDS against Israel, and refuses to co-sponsor and endorse an event opposing such BDS, that does constitute an official endorsement. Freedom of speech, and academic freedom require equal access to both sides of a controversy, not official sponsorship and endorsement of one side over the other. The heavy thumb of an academic department should not be placed on the scale, if the marketplace of ideas is to remain equally accessible to all sides of a controversy.
I have no problem with a BDS campaign being conducted by radical students at Brooklyn College or anywhere else. Students have a right to promote immoral causes on college campuses. Nor do I have a problem with such an event being sponsored by the usual hard left, anti-Israel and anti-American groups, such as some of those that are co-sponsoring this event. My sole objection is to the official sponsorship and endorsement of BDS by an official department of a public (or for that matter private) college.
I was once a student at Brooklyn College, majoring in political science. Back in the day, departments did not take official positions on controversial political issues. They certainly didn’t sponsor or endorse the kind of hate speech that can be expected at this event, if the history of the speakers is any guide. The president of the university says this is a matter of academic freedom. But who’s academic freedom? Do “departments”—as distinguished from individual faculty members—really have the right of academic freedom? Does the political science department at Brooklyn College represent only its hard left faculty? What about the academic freedom of faculty members who do not support the official position of the department? One Brooklyn College faculty member has correctly observed that:
“[B]oycotting academics is the opposite of free speech. It symbolizes the silencing of people based on their race and religion.”
Does the political science department not also represent the students who major in or take courses in that subject? I know that as a student I would not want to be associated with a department that officially supported boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel. My academic freedom would be compromised by such an association. Also, I would worry that a department that was so anti-Israel would grade me down or refuse me recommendations if I were perceived to be pro-Israel, or even neutral. I would not feel comfortable expressing my academic freedom in such a department. I’m sure there are many students at Brooklyn College who feel the same. What can they do to express their academic freedom? Should they fight fire with fire by advocating boycotts, divestment and sanctions against the political science department or against Brooklyn College? Would that too be an exercise of academic freedom?
If I were a Brooklyn College student today and an opponent of BDS against Israel, I would not major in political science. I would worry that my chances of getting into a good law school or graduate program, would be put at risk. I would pick a department—or a school—that was less politicized and more academically unbiased.
Academic freedom does not include the power of department or faculty members to prosthelytize and propagandize captive students whose grades and future depend on faculty evaluations. That’s why academic departments should not take political positions that threaten the academic freedom of dissenting students or faculty.
I can understand the department of political science sponsoring a genuine debate over boycotts, divestment and sanctions in which all sides were equally represented. That might be an educational experience worthy of departmental sponsorship. But the event in question is pure propaganda and one-sided political advocacy. There is nothing academic about it. Would the political science department of Brooklyn College sponsor and endorse an anti-divestment evening? Would they sponsor and endorse me, a graduate of that department, to present my perspective to their students? Would they sponsor a radical, pro-settlement, Israeli extremist to propagandize their students? Who gave the department the authority to decide, as a department, which side to support in this highly contentious debate? What are the implications of such departmental support? Could the political science department now vote to offer courses advocating BDS against Israel and grading students based on their support for the department’s position? Should other departments now be lobbied to support boycotts, divestments and sanctions against China, Venezuela, Cuba, Russia, the Palestinian Authority or other perennial violators of human rights?
Based on my knowledge of the Brooklyn College political science department, they would never vote to sponsor and endorse an anti-BDS campaign, or a BDS campaign against left wing, Islamic, anti-Israel or anti-American countries that are genuine violators of human rights. Universities, and some departments in particular, are quickly becoming more political than academic. This trend threatens the academic freedom of dissenting students and faculty. It also threatens the academic quality of such institutions.
The Brooklyn College political science department should get out of the business of sponsoring and endorsing one-sided political propaganda and should stop trying to exercise undue influence over the free marketplace of ideas. That is the real violation of academic freedom and freedom of speech.
Shame on the Brooklyn College political science department for falsely invoking academic freedom and freedom of speech to deny equal freedoms to those who disagree with its extremist politics.