The Fallacious Argument About Free Speech and Israel
In a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed, UCLA Professor David Myers and Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller claim that StandWithUs’ Title VI complaint against UCLA — in conjunction with President Trump’s December 11 Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism — is part of a larger organization-wide agenda to stifle free speech and debate about Israel on college campuses. This accusation is patently false — and, ironically, part of a widespread attempt to typecast pro-Israel organizations such as StandWithUs as in step with a “conservative attack” on campuses nationwide.
During the spring semester of 2019, a Jewish, Zionist student at UCLA named Shayna Lavi sat through a mandatory Anthropology class in which a guest lecturer (San Francisco State professor Rabab Abdulhadi), delivered a lengthy diatribe, calling Israel a racist endeavor and equating Zionism with white supremacy.
When Lavi challenged Abdulhadi, she was discounted and continuously berated in front of the entire class. When she complained to the UCLA administration, her professor Kyeyoung Park, who had invited Abdulhadi to speak, began calling Lavi — and only Lavi — out by name in front of her class of over 100 students.
UCLA administrators could have condemned the guest lecturer outright. They could have taken the opportunity to publicly denounce antisemitism in all its forms. They could have required — or even merely suggested — that Park bring in a guest lecturer to present a counter perspective on what is indisputably a nuanced and controversial topic. The UCLA administration took no such actions, however.
Unfortunately, this incident was merely one in a series of antisemitic incidents at UCLA, where the administration has stood idly by, refusing to take the necessary steps to address the needs of its Jewish students admist an increasingly hostile campus climate.
As a result, StandWithUs filed a Title VI complaint, on behalf of Lavi, with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR). On January 6, OCR informed us that it accepted our complaint and were opening an investigation based on its merits.
Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination based on race, color, and national origin in programs or activities that receive Federal financial assistance. This includes UCLA, a publicly funded university. If discrimination based on race, color, or national origin occurs in a program or activity that receives Federal financial assistance, the institution receiving the funds has an obligation to take proactive corrective measures to protect its constituents or else risk losing its Federal funding altogether.
As the two previous administrations have done, President Trump’s administration has confirmed, in the December 11 Executive Order, that Jewish students are protected under Title VI. The order also directs agencies responsible for enforcing Title VI to consider the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. Additionally, the order prohibits agencies from infringing upon any rights protected by Federal law, including First Amendment rights. Ignoring this protection of First Amendment rights is a critical oversight that prevents full comprehension of the Executive Order and its impact.
The reality is that, despite criticism of the Executive Order and its inclusion of the IHRA definition as a tool that infringes upon freedom of speech,as Myers and Chaim Seidler-Feller claim in their op-ed, it does no such thing. It cannot. It neither prohibits nor punishes any speech. Rather, it merely identifies certain speech as antisemitic, i.e., discriminatory toward Jews.
In the United States, the free speech clause of the First Amendment generally protects the expression of offensive, including discriminatory, speech. That clause applies no differently to the speech covered by the IHRA definition. But merely because speech is protected does not mean that we cannot — and should not — identify it as discriminatory or bigoted where appropriate. And if such identification gives individuals pause before they engage in potentially bigoted speech, that presents no Constitutional crisis. Rather, it promotes civility in discourse and engagement.
This matter is about professors with an agenda using their platform to indoctrinate students into acceptance of a one-sided view rather than to educate about the full scope of a topic. This is antithetical, however, to the purpose of the university classroom, as the United States Supreme Court has recognized, which is to present students with varying viewpoints so they can reach their own conclusions. If anything, it is these professors who weaponize Israel and intimidate students, who are attempting to stifle free speech, rather than engaging in meaningful dialogue.
Let us be perfectly clear: neither the recent Executive Order, nor the Department of Education’s investigation at UCLA, nor any efforts to use Title VI to protect Jewish students are about stifling free speech, debate, or even dialogue about Israel. They are about protecting students from discrimination. Professors are free to say what they want; however, the Federal government is also free to withhold funding from universities that allow professors to use their platform to spew racist, antisemitic comments.
Carly F. Gammill is the Director of the StandWithUs Center for Combating Antisemitism. She also serves as Counsel for Litigation Strategy with the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department. Jonathan Bell is the Associate Director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department.