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January 23, 2019 8:01 am

Free Speech vs. Inclusive Speech: What’s Fair Game on Campus?

avatar by Karen Berman


An ‘apartheid wall’ erected by Students for Justice in Palestine at University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign. Photo: SJP at UIUC.

While the American Civil Liberties Union’s guide to speech on campus asserts that any “restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution,” we must also ask about slurs directed at specific populations based on their gender, race, religion, nationality, sexual orientation, or other demographic characteristics.

In a Gallup-Knight Foundation survey of US college students released earlier this year, when asked which value was more important, speech or respect for others, 53 percent chose diversity and inclusion while 46 percent chose free speech.

I am not prepared to make a Constitutional ruling on free speech. But what I can certainly affirm is that diversity and inclusivity must be reinforced in university environments.

For instance, the University of Haifa’s thriving population of non-Jewish students — more than 35 percent of the total student body — debunks the claim that Israeli society marginalizes Arabs or any other minority. Our campus combines an academically-challenging, broad-based curriculum with a student body that reflects the mosaic of Israeli society, including Jews, Arabs, Christians, Druze, and natives of small villages and large cities.

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We serve a greater number of recent immigrants than any other Israeli university, and offer more than 20 international degree programs taught in English. Our students are the future leaders who will thrive in diverse environments, not insular communities.

Our institution-wide embrace of diversity and multiculturalism is precisely what makes the Pitzer College faculty’s recent vote to suspend the Southern California-based school’s study abroad program with the University of Haifa so counterproductive and counter-intuitive.

In response to the faculty motion, which was passed on November 8, Pitzer’s Student Senate called the vote “a flagrant advancement of a political agenda at the expense of students who seek opportunities in Middle East/North African Studies, Arabic, Hebrew, Christianity, Judaism, Islam and the intercultural relations of Israeli and Palestinian ethnicities.”

The ultimate fate of Pitzer’s Semester at the University of Haifa program still hangs in the balance, as Pitzer President Melvin Oliver has joined the Student Senate in opposing the faculty’s position; it remains unclear who will make the final decision on the matter within the college.

The study abroad program offers Pitzer students the opportunity to take various courses taught in English at the University of Haifa’s International School, while offering ulpan (intensive Hebrew) and intensive Arabic language classes before the study abroad experience, as well as an internship program during the semester itself.

“To deny Pitzer students who want to study at University of Haifa the opportunity to study abroad and to enter into dialogue and promote intercultural understanding at the altar of political considerations is anathema to Pitzer’s core values,” Oliver stated.

The Pitzer faculty’s move is also anathema to academic freedom. Yes, today’s universities do have the responsibility to enable free speech. But by suspending the exchange program, the Pitzer faculty actually undermined academic freedom and free speech by robbing students of their freedom to choose where to study abroad. A related scenario recently played out at the University of Michigan (U-M), where two instructors denied student requests for study abroad recommendation letters solely because their planned destination was Israel.

At both schools — Pitzer and U-M — faculty members applied double standards in their behavior towards Israel and Israeli academic institutions. And double standards are part of what make these boycotts of Israeli study abroad programs antisemitic in nature, according to the State Department’s working definition of antisemitism, which encompasses “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

The State Department definition includes several other anti-Zionist behaviors within the purview of antisemitism, such as “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” a scenario that also recently transpired at U-M, when a lecturer compared Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Hitler.

Boycotts of Israel and Hitler comparisons do not constitute free speech, let alone inclusive speech, as the State Department makes clear. They are discriminatory, antisemitic actions that are couched as free speech and carried out under the guise of anti-Zionism.

But at the end of the day, the letter of the law is always up for debate and interpretation — and that’s why we have the Supreme Court and the lower courts in this country, to navigate that discourse and to set legal precedents that guide us through similar episodes that will arise in the future.

What we really need to pay attention to is the spirit of the law. Boycotts, double standards, and all forms of hate and discrimination have no place on any campus and are antithetical to the core values of higher education. Quite simply, we should expect more from our universities.

Karen L. Berman is CEO of the American Society of the University of Haifa.

The opinions presented by Algemeiner bloggers are solely theirs and do not represent those of The Algemeiner, its publishers or editors. If you would like to share your views with a blog post on The Algemeiner, please be in touch through our Contact page.

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