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The real free speech threat

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There’s a lot of writing these days about the Left being oversensitive crybabies that can’t handle free speech. Students shutting down racists like Milo Yiannopoulos and Charles Murray at the University of California Berkeley and Middlebury in Vermont made headlines in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, CNN, and Fox News.

At the same time, liberals are also quick to (rightly) point their fingers at the Trump administration’s authoritarian tendencies — from threatening journalists with meritless libel suits to banning them from White House press conferences.

But liberal institutions have hardly been open to those who challenge established orthodoxies. While universities often decry protests by their own students, they’ve shown an uncanny openness to certain outside third parties influencing hiring decisions and classroom curricula.

Radhika Sainath

During all the Milo campus riot talk, who remembered UC Berkeley’s suspension of a one-unit ethnic studies course on Palestine last semester? The student-instructor, twenty-two-year-old Paul Hadweh, had spent months preparing the course syllabus, going through all the right channels to get the course approved, only to find out — from a friend watching Israel Channel 10 — that his class was under scrutiny and Israeli government officials had “covertly” intervened. A few hours later he was informed by his faculty adviser that the course had been summarily suspended. Twenty-six students were left scampering to make up the unit weeks into the semester.

UC Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks declared that the course, “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis,” “espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organizing.” His statement echoed the complaints of pro-Israel advocacy groups, forty-three of which had written to Dirks calling the course “partisan” and “political indoctrination,” and even raised McCarthyite alarms, accusing Paul of being “an active member” of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

A week later, after public outcry, the university reinstated the class.

What happened at Berkeley, though not unique, is particularly ironic given the school’s iconic status as the birthplace of the free-speech movement. California’s flagship university prides itself on being a democratic institution, and thus allows students to propose, and teach, as Paul did, one-unit courses on subjects they’re interested in. Such “Democratic Action at Cal” (DeCal) courses include classes on PokémonHarry PotterThe Hunger Games, and Game of Thrones — as well as more serious topics such as “Marxism and its Discontents,” “Helping the Navajo Rebuild,” “CopWatch,” “Film Making for Activists,” and “Human Trafficking Prevention.” As one might imagine, the Marxism course requires readings by Karl Marx, Lenin, and Gramsci — all Marxists — with no corresponding readings by Milton Friedman and Friedrich Hayek. Similarly, the “Trafficking” course contains no pro-trafficking viewpoints, and the “Navajo Nation” course objective is for students to “not only learn about the issues surrounding the Navajo Nation…but …actually do something about it!

Paul’s reading list, in contrast, included writings by Palestinian and Israeli scholars such as Saree Makdisi, Ilan Pappe, the late Edward Said, and Eyal Weizman, as well as selections from the United Nations’s Goldstone Report (2009) and testimony from Israeli soldiers who fought in Gaza. The lecture scheduled for September 13 — the day the class was suspended — was on “Anti-Semitism, Nationalism, Imperialism and Colonialism in the Late Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century.”

Oddly, Chancellor Dirks is a colonial studies scholar whose seminal work includes The Scandal of Empire: India and the Creation of Imperial Britain, which many a nineteenth-century Brit might have argued espouses a single political viewpoint and offers a forum for political organizing. His other work includes Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the Making of Modern India, nothing if not putting India’s contemporary caste politics in historical perspective.

Paul and his adviser, UC Berkeley lecturer Hatem Bazian, were called into the office of Carla Hesse, the executive dean of the College of Letters and Sciences, the week after the summary suspension to discuss the course. They were questioned about a poster used to advertise the class, and asked why it didn’t say “Israel” on it. (It did.) They were also asked “whether the course description and syllabus had a particular political agenda” and what the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would be. Dr Bazian explained that studying settler-colonialism doesn’t constitute a political agenda and that Paul shouldn’t need to have a solution in mind to contemplate an alternative to the status quo. Ultimately, the suspension was rescinded, without any changes to the course content. Paul was relieved — as were his students, who had unanimously signed an open letter demanding the course be reinstated.

Sadly, the special scrutiny on Paul and his course was not unusual under Obama, and promises to be less unusual under Trump, as we saw at last week’s lovefest between Trump’s ambassador to the United Nations, Nikki Haley, and an anti-BDS conference organized by a number of the groups that called for the suspension of the Berkeley course and applauded a recent decision by Fordham University to deny club status to a Students for Justice in Palestine group because the group would lead to “polarization.”

In spring 2015, the AMCHA Initiative, which organized the campaign against Paul’s class, and applauded Fordham’s decision, similarly called for the elimination of a student-led UC Riverside literature course on “Palestinian Voices.” The university was forced to launch an investigation and ultimately determined that the class was fully protected under the UC’s course content and academic freedom policies. Though the course went forward, the student instructor was subjected to weeks of Islamophobic and misogynist cyberbullying.

The Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), also a signatory to the letter against Paul’s class, has likewise complained about courses it disagrees with. In spring 2015, it threatened Columbia University with legal action if it allowed a teacher’s workshop by law professor Katherine Franke titled “Citizenship and Nationality in Israel/Palestine” to go forward, declaring that it was “one-sided,” “riddled with anti-Israel bias” and “inaccurate . . . since there is presently no country called ‘Palestine.’” The letter also accused Professor Franke of antisemitism for her public support of using boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) to pressure Israel into complying with international law. The workshop proceeded as planned.

The ZOA’s record goes on. In 2011, the organization filed a Title VI complaint with the Department of Education’s (DOE) Office for Civil Rights arguing that a Rutgers University event featuring a Holocaust survivor and a Nakba survivor created a hostile environment for Jewish students, and wrote to Northeastern University in 2013 complaining of “one-sided” course readings “hostile to Israel.” Its fourteen-page letter to the City University of New York (CUNY) last February urging the banning of SJP chapters for alleged antisemitic actions sparked a six-month independent investigation by a former federal judge and prosecutor. All of these attacks failed. The DOE threw out the Title VI complaint, and the CUNY investigation found that SJP was not responsible for any antisemitic incident, and that the “tendency to blame SJP . . . is a mistake.”

Again, these attempts at censorship garnered little of the attention we see when a few college students protest, interrupt, or shut down talks by neo-Nazis and racists.

The First Amendment protects the right to free expression from government interference, whether that expression be Marxist or anti-Zionist. Cases like Paul’s are precisely why the Supreme Court warned against anticommunist loyalty oaths in its 1967 decision Keyishian v. Board of Regents of University of New York. In that case, professors at the State University of New York sued after they were notified that if they failed to sign a certificate swearing that they were not communist, they would be dismissed. In holding that the oath was unconstitutional, the Supreme Court noted:

The essentiality of freedom in the community of American universities is almost self-evident . . . To impose any straitjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of our Nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences, where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolutes. Scholarship cannot flourish in an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust. 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.

When close family members saw the news about Paul’s course, they told him he was “putting the family in danger.” He received a barrage of media inquiries asking whether he was attempting to indoctrinate his peers with antisemitic thinking. The story was covered in Russian, Turkish, Emirati, Israeli, Palestinian, Latin American, and American outlets. He couldn’t sleep. He became physically ill and was overwhelmed by anxiety as he worried for his family’s safety while he balanced his coursework, fought to reinstate his course, and worked to clear his name.

It’s particularly disconcerting that Berkeley informed powerful Israel advocacy groups that Paul’s class had been suspended, ostensibly for failing to follow proper procedures, before contacting Paul or anyone in the layers of faculty oversight that had approved the course in the first place.

Such censorship attempts have the potential to cause a tremendous chilling effect on campus debate on Israel/Palestine and alienate Palestinian students and Muslim students in an increased climate of fear.

Students and citizenry should of course feel free to debate scholarship, analyze research, and question underlying theories taught in college classes. But when powerful groups call for scrutiny of classroom discussion that appears to challenge the status quo, colleges should tread carefully.

There’s a lot of talk these days on how student-led calls for trigger warnings and against microaggressions may be affecting classroom discussion. A recent article described a Syracuse University professor’s decision to disinvite a filmmaker because she (wrongly) speculated the film would be protested by “the BDS faction” as the chilling effect of political correctness.

But idiosyncratic decisions made by individuals are not comparable to systematic decisions made by powerful institutional actors pressured by states and donors. In looking at issues of free speech and academic freedom, it’s important to note the difference between individuals responding to the free speech of other members of the academic community, and the free speech of the academic community responding to pressures from big donors and the state.

It’s critical for us all to make that distinction clear, and recognize that the actions of institutional actors have much broader implications than the actions of individual students or professors inside the university. And it’s time that universities recognize that in order to pursue their function as spaces for free intellectual inquiry, they can’t succumb to the political pressures of multi-million-dollar suppression industries.

This post was originally published here on April 6, 2017, by Jacobin. 

Radhika Sainath

Radhika Sainath is a staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Follow her on Twitter at @radhikasainath.

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15 Responses

  1. AddictionMyth on April 7, 2017, 4:08 pm

    Americans enjoy the strongest free speech protections of any country in this world – and speaking as a beneficiary of that – this is a VERY good thing. HOWEVER – Israel/Palestine is a country where you can get fined for insulting the honor of the prime minister’s brother (yes, really) and the occupied territories are even worse, and they are surrounded by countries where they will literally KILL you for saying the wrong thing about the state religion. So this course is about countries where the instructor could just as easily be fined, jailed or executed. This is another case of ‘careful what you wish for’ and both sides of the Israel/Palestine conflict will fight tooth and nail against free speech and religion. Oh the irony.

  2. JWalters on April 7, 2017, 9:34 pm

    Israel is doing its best to kill America’s freedom of speech. Israel can’t handle the truth.

    • Citizen on April 7, 2017, 10:50 pm

      The fellow travelers in the USA are also doing their best to kill America’s freedom of speech. How many states and/or governors of states have now passed anti-BDS laws, over a dozen, I think. It’s never mentioned in the main media….. Will somebody bring a case to the SCOTUS?

  3. Kay24 on April 7, 2017, 9:51 pm

    Australians seems to be getting it faster than Americans. Obviously the lobbies are not as successful as they are in the US. Any well informed and fair minded person by now, realizes exactly who the victim is in all this, and who deserves that support. I guess the zionists will be extra busy over there trying to change this.

    “A new poll finds that 55 percent of Australians see boycotting Israeli goods and services as a reasonable way to apply pressure in support of Palestinians rights.

    That is up from just 31 percent who expressed support for the boycott of Israel in 2014.

    In the same period, the number who said they would not support a boycott of Israel fell from 47 percent to just 25 percent. One in five remains undecided.

    Overall, 34 percent of Australians said they sympathize more with the Palestinians than with Israel, an increase from the 27 percent who held that view in 2014.

    Fewer Australians (26 percent) said they sympathize more with Israelis than with Palestinians.”

    • Maghlawatan on April 7, 2017, 10:49 pm

      It’s the end of winter in the northern hemisphere and in the mountains the snow is melting. It always reminds me of empires. Snow melts first where it is most exposed and in the smallest quantities. On sunny slopes. Or steep slopes.
      Where snow is concentrated, melting takes longer. At the level of a field the smallest quantities melt away leaving islands of solidity . These in turn reduce and disappear. Until there is one block left.

      The Zionists are in the process of losing Oz and Europe. The UK will take longer. The last block is the US.

      It is all going one way. Israel can’t sell apartheid to the goys.

    • RoHa on April 8, 2017, 4:06 am

      Yeah, but in the meantime, in between time, we ain’t got Bassem Tamimi .

  4. RoHa on April 8, 2017, 1:02 am

    “The real free speech threat”

    You think there’s only one?

  5. JeffB on April 8, 2017, 7:12 am


    Palestinian Solidarity as a specific endeavor started campus mass action with organized disruption of Israeli events and a desire to in an organized fashion suppress Zionist expressions. For example the some of the earliest protests were against Israeli expats having access to international student association services, and protests against Israelis being allowed to speak on campuses because they were “war criminals” (that even if true would make no sense). I will acknowledge that the recent Zionist opposition to having Rasmea Odeh speak at JVP is essentially the same dumb argument in reverse coming from my side but it is important to note the order of events regardless.

    Palestinian solidarity (later BDS) in the early years supported a full fledged individual boycott of Israelis, it was a desire to reignite the Arab boycott and import it into the west. For example in England the attempted boycott of sitting on doctoral committees for Israelis (whether in Israel or in England). That cultural boycott has gotten less aggressive recently. It now tries to distinguish between individuals and institutions where in the early years where it was openly directed at all Israeli individuals like the South African boycott had been. I think this change is a response to the obvious hypocrisy of saying one sort of boycott is a suppression of free speech and the the other a moral duty. It is also a response to the fact that a boycott of Israelis is clear cut discrimination on the basis of national origin which with enhanced civil rights protections is illegal (or a tort) now in a way it often wasn’t with regard to South Africa. (In case there is any claim this wasn’t the early policy let me just present the infamous George Galloway “I don’t debate with Israelis” which was a BDS action: ; or the controversy regarding Gal Gadot: )

    In sports we still see the cultural boycott going for institutional suppression, for example expelling Israel from FIFA. The olympics this year presented a good example where you had clear attempts at individual intimidation both with Egyptian Judo performer and towards the entire team by the team from Lebanon.

    It is the mix of political activism, interpersonal rudeness and cruelty with academics that is creating the poisonous environment. It is not the Zionists who want this battle. Zionists would love a situation of pure free speech with no disruption, no pressure, no economic threats. Let anti-zionism become an obscure purely academic enterprise which doesn’t harass Jewish students on campus and the problem goes away. In a world where Israel’s ethnic conflict is treated with the indifference and ignorance that most other country’s internal problems are discussed with there isn’t going to be counter activism. But we don’t live in that world. So anti-Zionism gets treated the same way other hate groups get treated. Your side is the aggressor here.

    • Mooser on April 8, 2017, 12:55 pm

      “Zionists would love a situation of pure free speech with no disruption, no pressure, no economic threats”

      Here’s “JeffB”s favorite classic Jewish joke.

      ‘An advanced student bursts into the cheder brandishing a newspaper. “Rabbi Panglosstein” he yells, “it says here in the newspaper that an asteroid is going to hit the Earth and destroy all life!”
      The Rabbi says: “I only have one question. How good will that be for Zionism”?

    • Talkback on April 9, 2017, 6:23 am

      JeffB: “It is also a response to the fact that a boycott of Israelis is clear cut discrimination on the basis of national origin …”

      LOL. Was the Jewish bocott on Germany clear cut discrimination, too? Don’t bother to answer, hypocrit.

  6. Sibiriak on April 8, 2017, 12:34 pm

    …these attempts at censorship….

    When it’s done to progressives, it’s “censorship”.

    When it’s done by progressives, it’s “no-platforming.”

  7. HHM on April 8, 2017, 1:57 pm

    At the University of Oregon, co-optation of an Arab student leader to collaborate with Hillel has been an effective Zionist strategy. Arab Student Union President Awab Rawi receives special recognition from the UO’s President Schill for his collaboration with Hillel in preventing Palestinian activism and honest framing of the asymmetric I/P relationship on campus. Neither Schill nor Rawi have visible qualms about classes on I/P taught by Zionist instructors, or that neither the law school’s Conflict and Dispute Resolution Program nor the Judaic Studies program will host academic speakers who honestly represent the brutal, colonial I/P relationship such as George Bisharat, Francis Boyle, Richard Falk, Hatem Bazian or Robin D.G. Kelley to provide students not only “balance” but historical and legal facts. Eugene has a prominent, similarly collaborating, truth-evading Palestinian community member to protect the Zionist framing from serious challenge. I strongly suggest that our Palestinian human rights movement recognize this source of strategic obfuscation and openly confront and expose the role of Arab collaborators and the obstacles they present to activists both at universities and in their communities.

    • JeffB on April 9, 2017, 9:07 pm


      It is time to admit that more and more Arabs are dropping the Palestinian cause as a pan Arab cause and seeing it as a local injustice. Arabs are tired of the cost of the war with Jews. Israel is every year more openly being part of the intra-Arab strategic defense framework. Economically the remnants of the Arab boycott are failing and trade (often indirect) is in a pre-boom stage. What remains is lip service mostly, and even that is starting to wane.

      I think it is time that Arabs openly tell Palestinians the window of time that they will have their support is closing. They don’t have a decade or so not a century or so to solve this conflict with even the level of political support they receive today.

      There is nothing wrong with Arabs openly admitting the Arab world has more serious problems and issues to address than whether Jews run .3% of their former territory or not. That this problem doesn’t appear tractable and they are moving on.

  8. DaBakr on April 8, 2017, 9:26 pm

    The authors very first sentence says everything you need to know. these are the ‘new’ intolerant bullies. as predicted when things turn 180degrees-there is very little difference in human nature.
    I think todays liberal elite academia is now referred to as the new puritanism-same as the old puritinism-but worse.

    • Mooser on April 9, 2017, 12:40 pm

      “I think todays liberal elite academia is now referred to as the new puritanism-same as the old puritinism-but worse.”

      Yup, nobody on the left is allowed to have sex. Compared to us Capt. John Smith was a swinger.

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