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April 4, 2017 6:02 am

The Campus Assault on Free Speech

avatar by Peter Reitzes

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Columbia professor Joseph Massad. Photo: Columbia.

Like many Americans, I am appalled by recent attacks on free speech at universities.

For instance, in February, a scheduled speech by Milo Yiannopoulos was met with violent protests at UC Berkeley, causing over $100,000 in damage. In March, a talk by political scientist Charles Murray was shouted down and disrupted, and in the resulting melee Middlebury professor Allison Stanger, who had agreed to moderate the discussion with Murray, received injuries requiring a brief hospitalization. These episodes attacking conservative speakers follow numerous others over the past few years, in which Israeli or pro-Israel speakers have been attacked and their talks suppressed.

Middlebury professor Linus Owens defended students on Vermont Public Radio. Owens said:

Mr. Murray was allowed to speak–people can speak during him. I mean, I go to movies and people talk during those movies and it’s not a first amendment issue…People don’t have to sit quietly in the audience. We have rules at Middlebury, but you know again, people don’t follow them. People, you know, talk during my class and I don’t sort of call them out for free speech issues.

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A Middlebury senior, Elizabeth Siyuan Lee, agreed with Owens, telling Boston Public Radio:

In terms of free speech, I don’t think that we violated his [Charles Murray’s] free speech in any way…It wasn’t that he wasn’t allowed to speak. He could have still spoken. He just simply couldn’t speak the way that he necessarily wanted to…

The view expressed by Owens and Lee amounts to this: They can determine who gets to speak peacefully on campus; they can prevent others from listening to or even intellectually challenging a speaker; they get to control the conversation; and they have nothing to learn from those who disagree with them. Needless to say, such views are antithetical to the very idea of a liberal education.

The issue, after all, is not that speakers such as Yiannopoulos and Murray (not to mention pro-Israel speakers) are deemed “controversial” by these campus communities. The very essence of “free speech” is that it should be safeguarded particularly with respect to dissenting, “controversial” opinions, even to opinions the majority deems distasteful or offensive.

It is interesting how differently the Middlebury campus has responded to alt-left speech. In recent years, anti-Israel Columbia professor Joseph Massad has spoken at Middlebury several times. In 2011, Massad made the absurd claim in Al Jazeera that “Tel Aviv is the only Western city that does not have any Arab or Muslim inhabitants.”

Referring to a 2013 op-ed that Massad wrote also for Al Jazeera, Jeffrey Goldberg, editor-in-chief at The Atlantic, tweeted that Massad expressed “one of the most anti-Jewish screeds in recent memory.” In the article, “Anti-Zionist Lecturer Invites Controversy,” published in The Middlebury Campus student weekly, it was reported that a number of students at Middlebury strongly objected to Massad being invited to speak on campus. The article stated, “During the question-and-answer session, individuals who disagreed with Massad’s position were given the opportunity to confront him” and the discussion on campus “remained respectful.” This seems indicative of an apparent double standard at Middlebury (and elsewhere) that embraces controversial left-wing speakers while shouting down controversial right-wing speakers.

Indeed, far-left speeches routinely occur on campuses, such as those given by former Black Panther and self-avowed Communist Angela Davis at the University of North Carolina and at Middlebury. Such speeches are celebrated by many, despite often having themes that are antisemitic with respect to their demonization of Israel. But rather than attacking such speakers or preventing their speeches, however distasteful or offensive they are to some or many, the norm has been (and should be) non-violent protest and intellectual engagement — not the violent suppression of the speech.

These points apply not merely to college campuses.

In 2016, I objected to a presentation at my Durham, NC synagogue, Judea Reform, by Omid Safi, Director of the Duke University Islamic Studies Center. Safi has made various hateful and misleading assertions about Israel during his career. Safi once wrote on Facebook (for just one example) that Israel “holds Gaza Palestinians in the world’s ‘largest open-air’ concentration camp.” Such a remark incites hatred and violence, in my opinion, in applying to Jews a term associated with the Nazis’ attempted genocide of Jews during World War II.

I attended Safi’s speech at Judea Reform. I listened respectfully. During his presentation, Safi shared how he and his Muslim students face intolerance and hate on social media. During the question period, I expressed to Safi how sorry I was about online hatred. I also pointed out that he himself has engaged in online hate, promoting on social media the claim that Israel runs an open-air concentration camp in Gaza. At first, Safi tried to explain that an open-air concentration camp is different from a concentration camp. He then conceded that perhaps he should reconsider using such language.

Invited speakers, particularly those with whom we disagree vehemently, should be engaged with challenging questions, facts and other non-violent tools. This is the very point of the value of free speech. Those who claim to endorse the idea of a liberal arts university should sharply condemn any repression of speech, no matter how righteous the motivation of the repressor.

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