California legislator promise to affirm free speech rights on campus earns praise of Palestine solidarity activists

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Irvine A student who disrupted the Israeli ambassador’s speech at the Irvine campus of the University of California is led out by a security officer (Photo: UprisingRadio.org)

A statement from a California legislator that a resolution affirming free speech rights on college campuses will be introduced during the next legislative session is encouraging Palestine solidarity activists.

The statement came after criticism was directed at a California Assembly resolution (HR 35) that affirmed support for a controversial report on the campus climate for Jewish students, denounced alleged anti-Semitism on California campuses and condemned the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The resolution, while non-binding, encourages the University of California administration to ensure that “no public resources will be allowed to be used for anti-Semitic or any intolerant agitation.”  It passed easily last Tuesday, but free speech advocates have spoken out vociferously against HR 35.

Critics charge that the text of the resolution conflates anti-Semitism with legitimate criticism of Israel. The resolution claims to be concerned with “anti-Semitic discourse,” an example of which is calling Israel an “apartheid state.” HR 35 states that the BDS movement has demonized “Israel and seek[s] to harm the Jewish state,” and also claims that there have been student groups that “encourage support for terrorist organizations such as Hamas and Hezbollah and openly advocate terrorism against Israel and the Jewish people.”

Meanwhile, more details about organizations that helped with drafting the resolution have come to light.

Long Beach, California Assemblywoman Bonnie Lowenthal announced Wednesday that a new resolution related to the issue of Palestine activism on campuses will be introduced during the next session, which begins in January. “I think it will boil down to a celebration of the First Amendment,” said Lowenthal in a statement, according to the Associated Press. “And it will make clear in no uncertain terms that students in our universities should feel safe to have differing opinions.”

A coalition of progressive groups, including the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), Jewish Voice for Peace and the Center for Constitutional Rights, blasted the resolution on alleged anti-Semitism in a letter sent to California legislators after it was passed.

“The resolution is a poorly researched, highly ideological resolution that contributes to a climate of intimidation faced by Muslim and Arab students on California campuses. Additionally, it will serve to chill the speech of the many Jewish students who wish to voice critical viewpoints about Israel,” the letter reads. “Although HR 35 does not create any new law, it effectively encourages university administrators to infringe upon students’ free speech rights. By equating legitimate political debates about geopolitics with anti-Semitism, the resolution emboldens administrators to take action to chill and prevent such speech.”

Activists applauded Lowenthal’s statement, though Lowenthal also supported the initial bill.

“I’m glad to see Lowenthal take steps to support free speech, and I think that shows that there was basis for criticism of the campus report and the House resolution,” said Rebecca Pierce, a Jewish student at the University of California, Santa Cruz who spoke before the committee that released the report on Jewish students. Pierce dissented strongly over the report, which has been criticized for recommending restrictions on Palestine solidarity protests on campus and leaving out the experiences of Jewish activists critical of Israeli policies.

The legislature’s actions “does send a message to student activists on UC campuses that we have something to worry about, that we’re going to be branded as anti-Semites,” said Pierce. “So to have a resolution in support of free speech will be a really good thing, but there needs to be a serious discussion about why this resolution about the [campus] report got passed in the first place with all the criticism of the report going around.”

Rachel Roberts, civil rights coordinator for CAIR, also said that she was “encouraged” by Lowenthal’s statement and “looks forward to working with her office on that.” Roberts also criticized the fact that “this happened in the middle of the summer, when all of the California college campuses were out of session,” and said that legislators did not have the proper information on the issue.

But the assemblywoman who introduced the Israel-related legislation, Linda Halderman, an Orthodox Jew who lost family in the Holocaust, is not backing down. In a phone interview with Mondoweiss, Vanessa Wiseman, a spokeswoman for Halderman, defended the resolution.

The resolution “focuses on simply acts of anti-Semitism on campus and the bill doesn’t mention Israel….The First Amendment is mentioned in there, and the only time Israel does come up in it is in the examples that pop up. So it’s unfortunately been rather mischaracterized,” said Wiseman.

Questioned over the fact that the resolution does focus on Israel and mentions the BDS movement, Wiseman said, “they’re mentioned in the sense of examples.” She repeatedly emphasized that the resolution is “anti-hate speech, not anti-political speech.” Wiseman also said “it’s unfortunate that folks have blown this up to be and taking it as we’re saying anti-Israel speech is automatically anti-Semitic. That’s not the intent of the bill whatsoever.”

Wiseman also provided details that have yet to be reported on: that the UC administration, the California State University administration and the Simon Wiesenthal Center “were all very involved in terms of drafting language and amending it to make sure that it protected the rights of free speech for students.” 

But the UC administration told the San Francisco Chronicle that they “think it’s problematic because of First Amendment concerns.” Wiseman said that the administration went “on the record as saying we will support this completely if you made a few more amendments to it.” Asked whether those amendments were made, Wiseman replied: “We made many of the amendments.”

Yet in an e-mail to Mondoweiss, Steve Montiel, media relations director for UC, said that one provision in the bill–language saying that “anti-Semitic activity will not be tolerated” and that “no public resources will be allowed to be used for anti-Semitic or any intolerant agitation”–was particularly problematic. “Based on a review by the UC Office of the General Counsel, we believe that such a provision would be found to be unconstitutional and an infringement on both free speech and academic freedom,” said Montiel. Montiel also said that the UC administration “neither supported nor opposed” the resolution.

California State University professors have also come under attack from Israel advocacy groups. But the state college administration, according to Wiseman, backed the much-criticized bill on alleged anti-Semitism.
 

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