A speech and its aftermath

January 25, 2007

When President Jimmy Carter shook his last hand Tuesday night and left Waltham, Mass., after a much-anticipated and controversial appearance, Brandeis University administrators most certainly exhaled. It was the culmination of a highly charged month leading up to Carter’s speech defending his new book, Palestine: Peace not Apartheid, that some have criticized as being overly critical of Israel’s dealings with the Palestinians.


There were modest student protests at the Carter event but no major disruptions during his hour-long speech. The latter couldn’t be said for the run-up to the event.


Carter’s invite spurred a campuswide discussion about academic freedom and the religious identity of Brandeis, an institution that was founded by Jewish leaders in an era of Jewish quotas at top institutions. Brandeis is not officially a Jewish university but has always attracted many Jewish students, faculty and donors.


Last year, the university became entangled in another controversy when it displayed and then removed a library art exhibition created by Palestinian teenagers after Brandeis officials determined the artwork only showed one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


The Carter episode attracted national attention. A Brandeis trustee initiated contact with the former president during the fall term, and the proposed event had Carter squaring off in a debate with Alan M. Dershowitz, the Harvard law professor and staunch supporter of Israel. But Carter nixed that format. Some saw the decision to propose a point-counterpoint event as a sign that Brandeis was unwilling to consider Carter’s ideas alone.


“Lots of faculty felt that if you invite a president, you don’t ask him to debate anyone. You want to hear him speak by himself,” said Gordon Fellman, chair of the peace, conflict and coexistence studies program at Brandeis.


Still, others argued that not allowing Dershowitz to speak at the event violated his freedom of speech and would allow Carter to emerge from the event without being challenged on his views.


After weeks of back-and-forth at Brandeis, more than 100 students and professors signed a petition inviting Carter to speak alone. A committee of faculty members and students extended the new invitation to Carter, and he accepted. So on Tuesday, the former president gave a 15 minute speech and answered questions that had been selected in advance — a decision that some students and faculty criticized. Dershowitz spoke in a separate event later that night.


Dennis Nealon, a Brandeis spokesman, said the university was proud of the civil discourse that took place at both events.


“It’s the duty of a college to spark debate and make sure those who want to engage in the debate were given the outlet,” Nealon said.



“Controversy is part of a university’s life. We’ve never flinched from controversy.”


Added Fellman, who was on the committee that invited Carter the second time: “Here’s a university at its best — allowing open inquiry. We know there are donors who are upset [by Carter’s presence], but they need to be reminded that there’s nothing that shouldn’t be open for discussion at Brandeis. We hope this sets the tone.”


But Stephen Flatow, the father of two daughters who attended Brandeis (one of whom was killed in Israel in a suicide bombing) said he wanted to attend the event to challenge Carter on points in his book. Flatow said he was told by a university official that the event was open only to faculty, students and staff.


“For an institution that’s supposed to represent freedom of speech, it seemed pretty controlled,” he said.


The circumstances surrounding Carter’s invitation to Brandeis were unique, but the case of a controversial speaker or a speaker with a controversial message coming to campus is not. A new policy at Boston College, which requires balancing speakers for those who differ on certain issues from Roman Catholic teachings, has upset many students there. Last year, the American Association of University Professors reviewed the issue of controversial political speakers and published a proposed statement declaring the importance of inviting such people to campuses — and rejecting the notion that speakers must be balanced, person by person, as invitations go out.


Robert Post, a Yale University law professor who was on the panel that wrote the AAUP statement, said there’s no general rule when inviting guests to campus.


“You have to think through the mind of an administrator,” Post said. “A bad way to go about it is to say, ‘We don’t like your views and stay away.’ A good mindset is, ‘He has very strong views, and we want to give students the full educational experience by hearing both sides.’”


Nealon, the Brandeis spokesman, said the decision to invite speakers belongs to the faculty and students, and that the college’s role is to create a forum for discussion. He said the college has no official policy on whether a speaker should come alone or be invited onto a panel. In the case of the Carter invitation, that choice was limited by the president’s decision to reject the panel format, Nealon said.


Greg Lukianoff, president of Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, said often times colleges get in the most trouble when they attempt to “over-regulate things.”


“This case is not about individual rights but about good pedagogy and policy,” Lukianoff said. “If a university invites a person to speak, it’s in its power to define the format.”


Brandeis was under no obligation to give Carter the whole stage, nor was it obliged to find a speaker with a different viewpoint, he said.


“The belief that Brandeis needed to provide a counterpoint is part of a growing misconception that some colleges seem to be buying into — the idea that they are endorsing  speaker’s ideas if they invite them to come alone,” Lukianoff said.
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