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.
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 Pokémon, Harry Potter, The 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.