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May 28, 2015 12:18 pm

Dershowitz: Universities Should be Unsafe for Political Correctness

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Efforts have been made to shut down controversial events or speakers at the University of Michigan. Photo: Andrew Horne via Wikimedia Commons.

The current code word being tossed around to protect political correctness from competition in the marketplace of ideas is “unsafe.”

“I feel unsafe” has become the argument stopper on many university campuses. Efforts have been made to shut down controversial events or speakers, some of which have succeeded, at MIT, the University of Michigan, Northeastern University, Oxford, Hampshire College, Smith College, and other great universities on the grounds that students would feel “unsafe.” Students must, of course, be and feel physically safe in their dorms, classrooms and campuses. That’s what university and city police are for: to protect against physical assaults and threats. But no one on a university campus should be or feel safe or protected when it comes to the never-ending war of ideas.

An important role of the university is to challenge every idea, every truth, every sacred notion, even if challenge makes students (or faculty) feel intellectually uncomfortable, unsettled, or unsafe. There must be no safe spaces in the classroom or auditorium that protect members of the university community from dangerous, disturbing or even emotionally unsettling ideas.

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There can be rules of civility that prevent shouting down opposing views, but these rules must be content-neutral, applicable in equal measure to politically correct and politically incorrect speech. Universities must not have acceptable ideas that are given greater protection that unacceptable ones. All ideas must compete on an equal footing in open marketplaces.

But what about ideas that really do make certain individuals or groups feel intellectually or emotionally unsafe—ideas such as opposition to gay marriage, to a woman’s right to choose abortion, to race-based affirmative action, to religion in general or to particular religious or religious practices, to Zionism or anti-Zionism? It is especially these unpopular ideas—some of which were quite popular in the recent past—that today need protection against the forces of political correctness that seek to stifle dissent in the name of safety.

So long as there is no realistic, imminent threat to physical safety—such as an incitement to commit violence against gays, women, blacks, Jews, etc.—the university must assure the safety of the politically incorrect speaker, student, faculty member, administrator or employee. The answer to bad speech must be good speech; the response to false ideas must be true ideas; the protection against dangerous ideas is effective rebuttal, not censorship.

The university should be an uncomfortable place for comfortable ideas. It should be a dangerous place for all deeply felt ideologies. It should be an unsafe place for political correctness or incorrectness. Ideas must live and die on their merits and demerits, so long as those espousing them are kept safe from physical intimidation or threats.

The line between physical safety, on the one hand, and intellectual or emotional safety, on the other hand, will not always be clear or easy to administer, but doubts must always be resolved in favor of freedom of expression, even against claims of unsafety, because it is far too easy to argue that safety is being endangered in ambiguous circumstances. For example, one professor has talked about “the violence of the word”—a metaphorical concept that could spell the end of controversial speech on campus. I don’t doubt that some people really do feel subjectively unsafe when their conventional wisdom and deeply felt world views are challenged, but freedom of expression is too valuable to surrender to subjective feelings. Before speech may be stifled in the name of safety, rigorous objective standards should have to be met.

Freedom of dissent on many university campuses is quickly becoming an endangered species. Many constituent groups support free speech “for me but not for thee.” Ideas that they express come within the ambit of free expression, but opposing ideas that make them feel unsafe are now included in the amorphous category of “harassment.”

The real world into which students graduate is not always a safe place. Students must be prepared to face the cruel realities of obnoxious views that make them feel uncomfortable and unsafe. Sexism, racism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other awful “isms” still exist in many parts of our own country and in the world. We have the right to try to defeat these pernicious and dangerous ideas in the marketplace. But we cannot censor them in the real world. Nor should we try to protect our students from them as they prepare to enter that world. Instead, members of the university community must learn the best ways to respond to ideas they detest within the framework of a free and open marketplace.

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law Emeritus at Harvard Law School. This article originally appeared in the commencement issue of The Crimson.

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  • Universities around the world have become breeding grounds for anti Semitic and anti Israel propaganda in order to further the cause of diabolical agendas like the BDS movement. When Jewish students are beaten up, when teachers warn students that any assignments that don’t further the cause of pro Arab causes will be failed. When Universities invite some of the most vial actors on the world stage like Ahmadinejad who spoke at Columbia University with the grand prize of a select few students having dinner with him but don’t invite Netanyahu or another high ranking Israeli official to voice their opinions and beliefs in order to counteract the lethal and slanderous remarks of Iran, we have a serious problem. The last time I checked, we do not live in Nazi Germany but the environment at many universities today resemble Europe in the 30’s and 40’s. This atmosphere is most definitely unsafe, not only physically but morally and ethically as well. When a society lapses into depravity it usually leads to anarchy and this spells the beginning of the end of that culture or country. We are well on our way in having this happen and this is unsafe for everyone.

  • Barry

    ” Sexism, racism, homophobia, antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other awful “isms” ”

    Why should the fear of Islam ” Islamophobia” be suppressed by those who know what the teachings of the tenets of this religion are capable of?
    Why is it wrong to express one’s misgivings about the proponents of this religion?

    • Rabbi Menashe Bovit

      Professor Dershowitz is not at all calling for a ban on criticism of Islam, criticism that some foolishly call Islamophobia. As a skilled attorney he includes “Islamophobia” in a list of what would likely be placed in the category of speech that the politically correct crowd seeks to ban. He also makes the argument that even anti-Semitic speech should be allowed providing it doesn’t advocate violence. He is simply making a broad argument to preserve free speech on the university campus regardless of who is offended. His argument is to that issue alone. One shouldn’t be distracted by the inclusion of the term “Islamophbia”, a false politically correct term Deshowitz cleverly includes in countering the arguments of those seeking special treatment for Islam under the banner of “political correctness”.

  • Myriam Obadia

    True, but incomplete: Mr Dershowitz assumes that physical safety is provided for students and faculty who profess both PC and non-PC ideas and that rules are evenhandedly applied to avoid the shouting down of any free speech no matter how unpopular, unfortunately that’s far from the case as can be currently observed on most University campuses the world over (USA included). Vocal minorities can and do bully and physically threaten students and faculty who hold opposing views in the very name of the free speech they deny others. The claim of fear for one’s safety is -unfortunatelly- still more grounded in reality than in PC.

    • esther noodelman

      I AGREE WITH YOUR CONCERN FOR THE SAFETY OF THE STUDENTS WHO ATTEND LECTURES WHERE THE GUEST OR SPEAKER WORKS UP THE CROWD(MANY OF WHOM ARE ALREADY RABBLE ROUSERS)E.G. EXPRESSES ANTI-ISRAEL HATRED AND THEN STUDENTS ARE ATTACKED VERBALLY AND PHYSICALLY AS THEY LEAVE THE ROOM.
      THE FEAR FOR THE STUDENTS SAFETY MUST BE A MAJOR CONCERN AND BE DEALT WITH OR THE STUDENTS MUST CALL ON THE JEWISH DEFENCE LEAGUE TO PROTECT THEM WHEN THEY HAVE HATRED WEEK,BETTER KNOWN AS APARTHEID WEEK ON CAMPUS.WHEN YOU HAVE THE ONLY DEMOCRACY IN THE MIDDLE EAST CALLED AN APARTHEID STATE,WE’RE LIVING IN AN AGE WHERE LIES ARE TRUYJ AND VICE VERSA AND WE NEED PROTECTION FROM BLIND PROFESSORS.

    • James Wills

      If speakers or students have a real concern for their physical safety, that becomes a disciplinary issue for the University – or if more severe, one of law enforcement. And in my opinion, if the University officials would grow a spine and make it clear that such behavior will NOT be tolerated, it would vanish quickly.

  • Steven Kalka

    I couldn’t agree more. Any university that shelters students from uncomfortable ideas is an intellectually sheltered workshop not worthy to be a center of higher learning.

  • Ephraim

    When all is said and done, and this period of history is in the past, I think that the tyranny of politically-coerced censorship will come to be regarded as one of the most retrogressive and fascist concepts in world history. It will rank right up with Nazism, McCarthyism, Fascism, and every other tyrannical closed minded concept.

  • Sorry Alan you are a complete hypocrite here…You supported Obama twice…
    Obama and his Justice Dept worship @ the God of political correctness…
    If you support Obama you have to support political correctness

  • PAT CONDELL SAID:

    “Irrational Islamic Jew-hatred is the root cause of the problem in the Middle East.”

    PAT CONDELL SAID:

    “It is often said, because it is true, that if the Arabs laid down their weapons, there would be peace, but if the Jews laid down their weapons, they would be massacred, because the Arabs, the Muslims Arabs for all you hair-splitters out there, don’t want peace, they want the Jews dead.”

    SOURCE: Useful idiots for Palestine by Pat Condell
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LeGYAfh9A1k

    MICROBIOGRAPHY:
    Pat Condell is an atheist who was born in Ireland around 1950 CE and raised in England as a Roman Catholic and educated in Church of England schools.

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