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Editorial: Calls to police campus speech against Israel must be rejected

Universities across the country are responding to student comments too harshly.
Image by Sarah Mai

The Executive Committee of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) is alarmed by the wave of actions taken against student activist groups who have been engaging in peaceful protests on campuses around the nation. In recent weeks, the State University System of Florida and Brandeis University have banned Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) from their campuses.

While some SJP chapters used deplorable rhetoric in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas atrocities, banning or penalizing a student organization is an extreme step that almost inevitably violates the larger right of students and faculty to advocate for Palestine and against Zionism on campus. Furthermore, arguments for the peremptory investigation and banning of SJP chapters contain troubling implications for free expression in support of Palestine. 

Even more troubling is that Brandeis’s decision came in the wake of a letter from The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), addressed to the presidents of several colleges and universities in the United States, urging them to investigate and surveil the activities of SJP chapters on their campuses. Brandeis President Ronald D. Leibowitz justified his actions in an op-ed in the Boston Globe, in which he conflated Palestinian solidarity and criticism of the state of Israel with, in his words, “terror and antisemitism.” 

We take it as a given that hate speech targeted at a race or religious community, and more specifically antisemitism, has no place on a university campus or in the broader society. However, extreme care must be exercised in determining what constitutes such hate speech.

Speech against Israel and its actions does not constitute hate speech or antisemitism. Calls to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel, as well as structural analyses of Israel through the lens of apartheid or settler colonialism, lie in the realm of free speech and academic inquiry regardless of whether or not they are popular, and must not be the subjects of bans in an open society. 

As the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism affirms, “Criticizing or opposing Zionism as a form of nationalism” is not antisemitic speech and “the same norms of debate that apply to other states and to other conflicts over national self-determination apply in the case of Israel and Palestine.”

We also note, given that the crisis in Israel and Gaza is ongoing, the Declaration cautions against the policing of political rhetoric: “Political speech does not have to be measured, proportional, tempered, or reasonable to be protected under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and other human rights instruments. Criticism that some may see as excessive or contentious, or as reflecting a ‘double standard,’ is not, in and of itself, antisemitic.”

University administrations have a responsibility to stand against antisemitism, Islamophobia and racism on their campuses. However, banning an established student organization from a campus community at the behest of an outside organization, especially without a formal inquiry and due process, is an egregious infringement on the right of students and other university members to conduct political activism on campus. 

Furthermore, punitive action against Minnesota’s SJP chapter or other University of Minnesota groups critical of Israel would have — and would in all likelihood be intended to have — a chilling and repressive effect on all University members inclined to speak and advocate for Palestine. Indeed, Columbia University’s decision on Nov. 10 to suspend both its SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapters indicates a disturbing and unacceptable trend toward the broad silencing of the speech and activism of student groups. 

As Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren wrote in the majority opinion in Sweezy v. New Hampshire: “The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident. …Teachers and students must always remain free to inquire, to study and to evaluate, to gain new maturity and understanding; otherwise, our civilization will stagnate and die.” 

In his concurring opinion, Justice Felix Frankfurter cautioned that outside sociopolitical interference in university communities “inevitably tends to check the ardor and fearlessness of scholars, qualities at once so fragile and so indispensable for fruitful academic labor.” 

We thus urge the administration of the University of Minnesota to ignore any entreaty from the ADL and to resist calls to censure or penalize opinions expressed against the state of Israel and Zionism. Instead, we call upon President Jeffrey Ettinger to affirm the University’s support for peaceful protest and the right to free speech for faculty, staff and students.

Sumanth Gopinath, Nathaniel Mills and Gopalan Nadathur, on behalf of the Executive Committee of the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities AAUP Chapter. The University of Minnesota Twin Cities Chapter of the American Association of University Professors advocates for shared governance, academic freedom and fair working conditions in higher education teaching and research.

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  • Susan Frenzel
    Nov 14, 2023 at 10:34 am

    Well said, and well done! But remember, it doesn’t take very much free speech to make the University community unsafe for Jews and Muslims. Hate speech encourages hateful action.

    All it took was one teen spouting off about Asians causing covid, to get an Asian man to run to the front of a packed bus for protection by the driver while the rest of us Americans sat mutely by and he feared for his safety. Speak up for justice, but shut down hate speech, for the safety of all of us.

    I’ve read the Old Testament and the Qu’ran, and I don’t remember God giving any land to any religion or ethnicity into perpetuity. Country borders are manmade constructs, and human life is more important. It’s a foreign war. Don’t bring it home. Tell Congress and the President to stop funding foreign wars. Email works and doesn’t threaten fellow Americans.