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Sunday, November 05, 2023

University hypocrisy on free speech

David Bernstein links to a letter from Bill Ackman (a hedge fund guy I confess to never having heard of, but apparently he is well known) to the Harvard administration detailing his conversations with Jewish Harvard students about the campus atmosphere for Jewish students. Ackman describes the atmosphere as "dire and getting worse, much worse than I had realized." Ackman notes the university's stated commitment to free speech, but responds in two ways. He points to the "legal limitations on free speech" (fighting words and true threats), which simply are not present here, even in the "eliminationist" "river to the sea" message.

And he points to Harvard's past track record on campus free speech (citing, unfortunately, to FIRE's questionable ratings system) and arguing the claim "rings false and hypocritical to the university at large and the Jewish community in particular." Ackman repeats the point that David and I raised--universities did not discover the "right" approach to speech controversies--stay out of public controversies, respect that speech can be ugly and make people uncomfortable--until Jewish students were in the crosshairs.

But I keep coming back to what Ackman (or anyone else) wants Harvard and other universities to do. Ackman makes 7 asks. The second and third involve identifying and sanctioning protesters chanting "Intifada and other eliminationist statements" and students making antisemitic statements or sharing antisemitic imagery in Slack message boards--without regard to many (most?) of these chants and messages being fully constitutionally protected--ugly, but constitutionally protected. While demanding "an environment with true freedom of expression," he seems to want Harvard to treat antisemitic speech the way schools had been treating anti-Black, anti-LGBTQ+, anti-immigrant, anti-abortion speech in prior years.

So if not that, then what? If schools should not continue the same erroneous course, we should be glad that they have seen the light. even under suspicious circumstances and for suspicious motivations--that the same messages directed at any other group would be widely denounced if not silenced). There may be an independent benefit to calling out that inconsistency, either to prompt schools to acknowledge past mistakes and to agree not to return to the old approach when the speech targets other groups. School have not done either, enabling the hypocrisy charge. (David made this point in an email exchange, and I agree).

But Ackman--and others--want more. Ackman's fourth ask is that Harvard facilitate the process of identifying racist and antisemitic students for future employers or grad schools. But this triggers a distinct free-speech debate. On one side is the employer's or (private grad program's) free speech and free association interests--cancel culture as "more speech." On the other is the specter of McCarthyism and black lists that Genevieve Lakier (Chicago) highlights. To have Harvard (which is the "government" in this context) enable those blacklists or to have public grad programs enforce them might strengthen the analogy.

Addition: Michelle Goldberg captures the big picture on this, noting the collision between calls for Jews and Israelis to receive the same protections that other groups have received against "identity-based slights" and the First Amendment rights of Zionism's critics and academic freedom. She speaks with Kenneth Stern, director of Bard College's Center for the Study of Hate and author of a 2020 book (with forward from Nadine Strossen) on how Israel/Palestine has played on campus.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on November 5, 2023 at 11:47 AM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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