Free Speech a Principle, Not an Instrument
One of the biggest challenges facing modern democracies is how to deal with anti-democratic movements that use the institutions of civil society to advance their cause. People responsible for governing these institutions find themselves in a bind when confronted with pro-totalitarian activists.
On one hand, denying apologists for totalitarianism the chance to address the public square invites the charge of totalitarian censorship. On the other hand, history has shown that the people who scream the loudest about liberty and free speech have no intention of respecting the rights of others. Their goal is not to use the rights of free speech and academic freedom to promote the cause of liberty, but to undermine it.
This scenario played itself out at Brooklyn College in New York City, where anti-Israel activists successfully invoked the right of academic freedom to hold a BDS conference in the face of criticism from students at the university and from members of the New York City Council.
The invocation of these principles by the conference organizers is ironic. One of the main speakers at the forum was Judith Butler, who has spoken in defense of Hamas and Hezbollah – two groups that are clearly committed to the destruction of the Jewish state – a democracy – and the creation of an Islamist totalitarian society in its place. So what we have here is an activist using her right to free speech defend two groups committed to creating a society in which this right does not exist.
When Mayor Michael Bloomberg got wind of the controversy regarding the Feb. 7 conference – which was sponsored by the school’s political science department – he came out swinging, invoking the principle of academic freedom and free speech.
“If you want to go to a university where the government decides what kind of subjects are fit for discussion, I suggest you apply to a school in North Korea,” he said.
Ironically enough, it appears that the activists whose rights Bloomberg defended went on to deprive others of their rights.
For example, the organizers of the forum expelled four Jews from the event after it began. The New York Daily News reported the following:
Senior Melanie Goldberg and three classmates were escorted out of the event, which featured the founder of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, by security officers shortly after it began.
“The whole point of having this debate was that it would be an open academic forum where I would be allowed to ask questions,” said Goldberg, who is studying journalism. “So I came prepared to ask questions.”
But when Goldberg took out her questions on handouts for the main speaker, BDS founder Omar Barghouti, she was asked by a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, which organized the event, to hand them over.
“Someone came to me and said, ‘Give me all your papers, or you’ll be forcibly removed from the event,’ “ she recalled. “Not only was it a violation of my freedom of speech, but they made sure to silence me.”
The story includes another troubling detail: “Members of media outlets — including a Daily News reporter who was wearing a yarmulke — were also removed from the event despite reserving places to cover the forum.”
This doesn’t look like an innocent coincidence.
Goldberg’s personal testimony, provides more troubling information. She reports that she was expelled from the event, in violation of her academic freedom, in full view of an official from Brooklyn University, who did not intervene.
Afterwards, a public relations officer for the school stated that the students were removed from the event because they were being disruptive. The New York Daily News reported the following:
“Based on official reports, they were being quite disruptive,” said college spokesman Jeremy Thompson. “They were asked to quiet down so they wouldn’t disturb the other attendees around them. After not complying, they were escorted from the building.”
Goldberg calls this account “a blatant lie.”
That’s a pretty strong denial, isn’t it?
Goldberg’s account is backed up by Ari Ziegler, a graduate student who was also kicked out of the event. In an op-ed in the New York Daily News, Ziegler writes:
We asked why we were being removed. College security’s response:
“We don’t have an answer.”
We asked for someone who could provide an explanation.
“We don’t have an answer for that, either.”
Within minutes, we found ourselves led down six flights of stairs and then outside the building.
Those are the facts, despite whatever else you might hear.
As far as I can tell, what happened is that a student who disagreed with my views called security and told them to remove me. The fact is that I was barred from asking questions in an open forum, from trying to understand an opposing viewpoint. (Italics added.)
The college has said that “based on official reports, they were being quite disruptive.” This is a complete fabrication.
The picture coming out of the Feb. 7 event at Brooklyn University is an ugly one in which known Israel supporters – and Jews – were ejected from a public forum about the sins of the Jewish state.
The school’s officials defended their decision to proceed with – and sponsor – the conference by invoking the principles of free speech and academic freedom, but then failed to ensure that these principles were adhered to at the event itself.
This is not OK.
If people want to attend – or work at – a university where students can be thrown out of an event in a manner that silences dissent, then maybe they should apply to school in North Korea.
Dexter Van Zile is Christian Media Analyst for the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA).