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October 6, 2022 12:54 pm
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Human Rights Group Slams Berkeley ‘Ban’ on Zionist Speakers

avatar by Dion J. Pierre

UC Berkeley’s Sather Gate. Photo: John Morgan.

Excluding pro-Israel speakers from university campuses amounts to a “political litmus test” which undermines “tenets of free speech,” the human rights nonprofit PEN America said on Tuesday.

The group issued its statement in response to a new policy — described as establishing “Jewish Free Zones” — that eight student groups at University of California, Berkeley Law School approved to ban Zionists from speaking there.

“Calls to adopt and enshrine a political litmus test for all speakers invited to campus are inimical to the mission of universities and to freedom of expression and association,” PEN America Senior Manager of Free Expression and Education Jeremy C. Young argued. “Pressing a categorical pledge of this type precludes the possibility of open discussion on a sensitive and important political issue.”

Proposed by Students for Justice in Palestine at Berkeley Law as part of a resolution endorsing the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, the measure has been criticized by lawmakers and Jewish groups for posing a threat to academic and intellectual freedom.

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“Berkeley Law School appears to have handled this controversy effectively, ” Young continued. “While the proposal has apparently not let to any known event cancellations or speaker disinvitations, it must be recognized that such campaigns can have a chilling effect, contributing to an environment in which an openness to hearing from those one disagrees with is stigmatized and discouraged.”

On Monday, UC Berkeley law faculty, working with the Academic Engagement Network, a nonprofit that promotes free expression and academic freedom on college campuses also issued a statement affirming “the principle of free and open speech at the law school.”

“For many Jews, Zionism is a core component of their identity and ethnic and ancestral heritage,” it said. “As an educational institution we hope that the student groups that have now endorsed a ‘No Zionists speakers’ pledge will engage in dialogue on these issues.”

The statement has so far been signed by UC Berkeley Law School Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, Koret Professor of Law Peter S. Menell, and Claire Sanders Clements Professor Emeritus Malcolm Feeley.

Dean Chemerinsky has, however, downplayed the severity of the policy, arguing in an op-ed that “a handful of student organizations — fewer than 10 out of over 100 — initially adopted the by the law.”

“But the rest rejected it or ignored it,” he continued. “Most importantly, no group has violated the Law School’s policy and excluded a speaker on account of being Jewish or holding particular views about Israel. Such conduct, of course, would be subject to sanctions.”

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