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From: Len Gutkin
Subject: The Review: From the river to the university?
Brandeis University has banned the activist student organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). At Columbia University, the SJP and another pro-Palestinian activist group, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), have been temporarily suspended, supposedly for breaking campus rules. Are these actions violations of the principles of academic freedom?
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Brandeis University has banned the activist student organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). At Columbia University, the SJP and another pro-Palestinian activist group, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), have been temporarily suspended, supposedly for breaking campus rules. Do these actions violate the principles of academic freedom?
Certainly, in the Brandeis case, and probably, in the Columbia one. That’s because academic freedom, although primarily applicable to faculty members, also includes students’ “freedom … to form associations in accordance with their intellectual, political, and convivial interests,” as the sociologist Edward Shils put it. This associational freedom obviously extends to activist organizations like the SJP.
In the case of public universities, associational freedom for students was established as a constitutionally protected right in the 1972 Supreme Court Case Healy v. James, which required Central Connecticut State College to recognize its chapter of Students for a Democratic Society. As Justice Lewis Powell wrote for the majority, “The precedents of this court leave no room for the view that, because of the acknowledged need for order, First Amendment protections should apply with less force on college campuses than in the community at large. Quite to the contrary.”
The existence of such constitutional protections seems to have compelled Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican of Florida, to cancel his own attempts at banning SJP from Florida’s colleges. Neither Brandeis nor Columbia, of course, is bound by the First Amendment. But Brandeis’s own “Principles on Free Speech and Expression” don’t appear to offer any valid grounds for restricting SJP. “In narrowly-defined circumstances,” the document says, “the university may restrict expression, as for example, that violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university.”
Brandeis would presumably insist that, because on Brandeis’s own construal SJP endorses Hamas’s “call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people,” the organization is indeed incompatible with the university’s functioning. It’s a stretch.
At Columbia, SJP and JVP have not been banned but merely “suspended,” supposedly for breaking campus rules. In his statement announcing the suspension, Gerald Rosberg, a Columbia vice president and chair of its special committee on campus safety, was indefinite about which policies specifically had been violated, though he did mention “an unauthorized event … that proceeded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.”
That’s vague, although Brandeis might give a clue. In explaining why they shut down a demonstration protesting their de-recognition of SJP, senior Brandeis administrators described “from the river to the sea” and “Intifada, intifada,” both of which the protesters had been chanting, as “threatening language that has been explicitly described as hate speech.”
Whether such chants are “hate speech” is a matter of dispute; colleges are supposed to be dedicated arenas for such dispute. As a group of Harvard faculty told university’s president, Claudine Gay, in response to her official condemnation of the slogan, “the phrase ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine must be free’ has a long and complicated history. Its interpretation deserves, and is receiving, sustained and ongoing inquiry and debate.” Jeffrey C. Isaac, a political-science professor at Indiana University at Bloomington, rejects the hate-speech characterization: “I do not agree with some of my Jewish American friends who assert that ‘from the river to the sea’ is ‘obviously’ an eliminationist call for the conquest and expulsion of Jews or at least the violent defeat and destruction of Israel.” Nevertheless, he says:
It is obvious that this is how most American Jews and their allies, and virtually all Israeli Jews, interpret this phrase — as not simply a statement to which they might object, but as a rallying cry that threatens them, especially in Israel but not only there, for there is no doubt that the slogan has furnished an occasion for acts of antisemitism in many places in the Middle East but also Europe and the U.S.
Slogans like “from the river to the sea” are ideal objects of academic analysis, inviting questions of history, of political theory, of rhetoric, and even of ethics. To what extent do a speaker’s intentions matter when speech is perceived as hateful? What tactical considerations should political actors make when using such speech? And so on. In categorically declaring these slogans out of bounds, Harvard and Brandeis and Columbia are abrogating an opportunity to do what they are supposed to do: teach.
Why is that so hard for administrators to say? Part of the reason, probably, is that for the last several years they have cultivated extraordinary sensitivity about harmful language, especially when such language is thought to hurt minorities or vulnerable groups. In 2016, for instance, leaders at Yale University decided, after what they presented as a period of profound deliberation, to change the term “master of college” to “head of college,” since the word “master” is “associated with the ownership of slaves.” Against a background like that, it’s rather difficult not to condemn language felt by a substantial group of students to be literally genocidal.
There is likely another, more serious, reason, too. Rhetoric over Israel has inflamed influential donors. At Bard College, for instance, Boston Celtics co-owner Robert Epstein resigned from the Board of Trustees over Bard’s refusal to cancel a class about the question of apartheid and Israel. The New York Times reports that Kenneth Griffin, who earlier this year gave $300-million dollars to Harvard, had privately “urged the university to come out forcefully in defense of Israel.” The dangers that benefactors can pose to academic freedom are perennial. But as Lila Corwin Berman and Benjamin Soskis explain in our pages, the emergence in recent decades of individual megadonors capable of bestowing enormous philanthropic gifts amplifies the risk that academic freedom will be compromised.
Are donors succeeding in getting colleges to punish or prohibit disfavored speech? It’s impossible to say for sure — but we know that they are trying. Even the appearance that such corruption is plausible damages the university.
- “How in the dickens did Dickens know” that George Eliot was a woman, asks Namwali Serpell in an essay on “female style” in the New York Review of Books.
- “Is there anything so depressing as instructions on how to behave?” In The Point, Lillian Fishman has a new advice — or “advice” — column on sex and love.
- “No other levitator has complained as often and as loudly about levitating as Teresa.” In The Public Domain Review, Carlos M.N. Eire writes about Teresa of Avila’s “visions and raptures.”
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