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Sunday, December 10, 2023

Confusing what happened and what can happen on campus

Less than a week having lapsed since The Hearing, we have entered the stage in which people talk about the series of events in a way that is factually incorrect or confuses the issues.

1) Eugene Volokh writes up something I thought about after watching the video (which Steve linked to) of MIT grad student Talia Khan: Khan confuses several things, some of which the university can and should address and some of which it cannot and should not address. Khan talks about groups of students storming the offices of Jewish faculty, students blocking access to buildings, university enforcement of an office-banner rule against Khan's pro-Israel signs that was not enforced against Black Lives Matter posters, and an interfaith chaplain singling out Jewish students--all of that, if true, represents misconduct by university officials or content-discriminatory enforcement (or non-enforcement) of university rules. But Khan also talks about leaving her study group because members said the Jews at the Nova festival deserved to die; the university cannot and should not police repugnant statements in personal conversations.

A different part of Khan's statement struck me while raising the same problem. She mentions a classmate who was afraid to leave his dorm. But we again need to know more about why. Was it to avoid the offense of offensive signs and statements from protesters or was it to avoid the physical encounters? That makes a difference about how we understand not the antisemitism of it, but to understand what universities can or should do about it.

2) I have the same reaction to this piece in The Forward by a Penn undergrad alum and grad student at Columbia. She begins with the question of why Liz Magill "didn't immediately answer with an unequivocal, resounding 'Yes' when asked if 'calling for the genocide of Jews' is antisemitic?" She then shifts to a classroom assignment, in which the professor criticized her for presenting something on the Holocaust (using clips of the film Shoah) because it would make other students (those out at protests) feel uncomfortable and unsafe in the classroom and that "'this is a particular moment where Jewish suffering is not what people want to hear about.'" As with Khan, if true, this represents the university (through a professor in the classroom) infringing the speech rights of Jewish students because of the Jewish content of their speech. That is not what the hearing or the presidents' answers were about.

3) To kvell for a moment: My kid got into Wesleyan this weekend. So I was interested in this short interview with Wesleyan President Michael Roth, who in a previous era of university hatred spoke eloquently of liberal-arts education. Roth almost got it right, but not quite. He admits that his armchair quarterbacking is easy; insists that the presidents' obvious answer was "yes;" then insists that offensive speech is not violence and that students not have a right to avoid offense from non-targeted public speech. But that third point undermines the second point, unless there is an "advocacy of genocide" exception to the First Amendment or "advocacy of genocide" is, per se, incitement under Brandenburg or a true threat; neither of those points is true and I do not hear Roth suggesting either is. So I will deduct half a cheer for Roth for giving an easy answer, presumably knowing that he could not (given Wesleyan's commitments to students) to enforce that easy answer against a peaceful campus protest that included "globalize intifada" chants and signs. Still, I am glad my kid is going to Wesleyan.

4) One narrative has Magill, Gay, and Kornbluth refusing to say calls for genocide of Jews are antisemitic; this is erroneous, as they were not asked this, did not say it, and , in fact, tried to denounce such content. Nevertheless, the narrative has taken hold. Doug Emhoff said it at the menorah lighting. The author of the Forward piece linked above began with it. On my wife's listserv of Jewish alumnae, some insisted that the presidents refused to say that calls for genocide are even "bad."

5) If Paul agrees with me, that must mean we have found the correct answer.

Posted by Howard Wasserman on December 10, 2023 at 01:04 PM in First Amendment, Howard Wasserman | Permalink


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