This statement was jointly written by Lisa Rofel, Margaret Ferguson, Sang Hea Kil, Brooke Lober, and David Palumbo-Liu, all members of The California Scholars for Academic Freedom.
U.S. campuses are sites of political controversy and, at their best, spaces for debate and engagement across different perspectives. At universities across the U.S., the question of whether and how professors and students can exercise free speech has emerged as the most salient of our time. Often ignored in the discussion of academic freedom is the power dynamic inherent to the space of communication. On campuses, both funding and political influence privilege certain actors to exercise “free speech,” while others are censored and even vilified. In this climate, exposure of power is in itself a political act. The California Scholars for Academic Freedom has decided to be pro-active in challenging the online website the Canary Mission, because of the serious harm it has caused to students and faculty in California institutions of higher learning and, more broadly, to academic freedom in the United States. One of our first actions was to attend a University of California Regents meeting, held on January 16-17, 2019 to demand that they distance themselves publicly from the Canary Mission and also from UC donors who have contributed to supporting the Canary Mission.
Statement at January 16, 2019 UC Regents Meeting:
We are the California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of over 200 academics and intellectuals with a commitment to defend academic freedom and first amendment rights of faculty and students in California’s institutions of higher education, and we wish to speak to the question of the relationship between funding, fundraising and academic freedom at the University of California.
We are concerned in general with how the University of California has increasingly bowed to the wishes of donors even when that means overriding the academic freedom of our own students and faculty.
The specific example of this problem we wish to focus on today concerns the Canary Mission. We have two actions we urge the UC Regents to take: one is to publicly distance itself from the Canary Mission. The second is to distance itself from one of the main funders of the Canary Mission: the Diller Foundation.
We wrote to UC President Napolitano in October 2018 about our deep concern that the University of California has been linked to a group, the Diller Foundation, that has provided financial support for an organization that is infamous for its suppression of free speech and academic freedom on US American campuses—the Canary Mission.
The Canary Mission, in operation for the last 3 and a half years, is an online blacklist that tries to smear the reputation of students and faculty who are critical of the policies of the state of Israel. They do so by writing grossly distorted descriptions of these students and faculty on their website. Then they contact prospective employers to tell them not to hire our students; and they manipulate the internet to make sure their website comes up first when prospective employers examine students they might hire.
Besides employing a dangerously broad sense of “hatred of the USA, Israel, and Jews,” Canary Mission’s “documentation” has proven to be seriously faulty and distortive. It selectively picks out bits of information and repackages them to create a purposefully misleading portrait of the individual or organization it is targeting. It has done so under the cover of anonymity, unable or unwilling to support and debate its accusations in public. Those who run this website have gone to great lengths to hide the digital and financial trail connecting it to its donors and staff. The website is registered through a secrecy service and, until recently, the site was untraceable.
It has smeared its targets and actively sought to defame them to prospective employers. This is a very real threat that has a devastating effect on students’ and professors’ free speech and academic freedom. Already we are aware of students whose job searches have been hampered or whose plans for study or travel to Palestine and Israel have been denied because of the defamation they received on Canary Mission’s website. Professors have been denied speaking engagements or grants and other opportunities to forward their research.
We have clear evidence of our undergraduates and graduate students losing out on jobs at universities all over the country, including in the UC system, because deans, provosts and chancellors do not want to have people on their campus who might upset donors.
The Canary Mission expansively exploits the recent adoption of the US State Department’s definition of “anti-Semitism,” which includes speech critical of Israel. This definition has been robustly challenged by the American Civil Liberties Union and a number of Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace. Even the author of this definition has made it clear that it was invented for entirely different purposes and has urged that it not be applied on university campuses, saying that it will cause more harm than good.
It was the Jewish periodical, The Forward, which, in October 2018, exposed the funding behind the Canary Mission. Their uncovering of the Canary Mission emphasized their concern with the McCarthyite tactics of the Canary Mission that do not reflect well on Jewish constituencies. Pro-Israel Jewish students and local Hillel professionals say it is damaging to their own work. They accuse the Canary Mission of being counterproductive and morally reprehensible. The Forward is concerned that this blacklisting website has had blowback effects on Jewish students who are viewed suspiciously as the informers for the website.
The student Senate at UC, Davis has passed a resolution condemning Canary Mission by name. The resolution says that Canary Mission, along with other blacklists, “threatens the security of student activists, as well as creates a toxic atmosphere of fear and paranoia among fellow students, thus infringing upon students’ ability to freely express their opinions.”
We hope the UC Regents and President Napolitano will make a similar public statement about the Canary Mission.
As the Jewish periodical The Forward report, quote:
Canary Mission has been controversial since it appeared in mid-2015, drawing comparisons to a McCarthyite blacklist. While some of those listed on the site are prominent activists, others are students who attended a single event, or even student government representatives suspected of voting for resolutions that are critical of Israel.
As The Forward notes quote: “In late 2016 or early 2017, the Helen Diller Family Foundation earmarked $100,000 for Canary Mission. It made the donation to the Central Fund of Israel, a New York-based charity that serves as a conduit for U.S. taxpayers seeking to make tax-exempt donations to right-wing and extremist groups in Israel. In its tax filings, the Diller Foundation listed the purpose of the grant as “CANARY MISSION FOR MEGAMOT SHALOM.”
Given the Diller Foundation’s financial support for an organization whose purpose is to stifle free speech and academic freedom, it should not be associated in any way with the University of California. Yet the president of the board of this Foundation, real estate developer Jaclyn Safier, sits on the Board of Visitors of the University of California, Berkeley, and is a Distinguished Director of the University of California at San Francisco Foundation. There appears to be a stark conflict of interest between Ms. Safier’s leading role in the Diller Foundation and her obligations to be a member of an “impartial” advisory body such as the UCB Visitors’ Board, to which the Regents have devolved substantial responsibility for financial matters and for the development of policy as well. According to the UCB Chancellor’s website, the Board of Visitors’ Board provides: “advice and support to the chancellor, executive vice chancellor and provost, and campus leadership. While the UC Regents have overall fiduciary responsibility for the system’s ten campuses, much responsibility is devolved to the campus level. At Berkeley, the chancellor’s leadership is strengthened by having an impartial, external group of advisors known as the Board of Visitors. The types of activities the board engages in are: considering the opportunities and risks facing the university, advising the campus on long-term strategy, helping to shape and advance key initiatives, reviewing and consulting on Berkeley’s annual operating and capital budgets and plans, and reviewing significant capital projects. Board members also advocate for the university with donors, the public, and policymakers.”
While the Diller Foundation has recently distanced itself from the Canary Mission, it has made no public statement condemning it; neither have any of the UC Chancellors condemned this McCarthyite entity acting to the detriment of UC faculty and students in ways that allow no debate or critique and that are thus contrary to the public university’s basic principles.
We call on the UC Regents to make a public statement condemning the Canary Mission and to distance itself from the Diller Foundation, one of the major funders of the Canary Mission. To remain silent on this very troubling situation, you risk emboldening this and other well-funded groups that are attempting to harm the increasing numbers of students, faculty, and the broader community of higher education in our state who are taking a stand against injustice. By sending a strong message that you will not allow the university to become complicit in the activities of such groups, you can protect the rights of current and future generations of Californians to academic freedom and free speech.
(Correction: The original statement included a passage one could infer The Forward did not support Palestinian Rights. We regret this and offer our apologies ~ Ed.)