Brandeis University President Fred Lawrence has just entered the “University President First Amendment Piety Contest,” and his submission is impressive.
First, the background: Last week, Sohrab Ahmari reported in The Wall Street Journal that Brandeis student Daniel Mael had faced a disciplinary hearing based on heated discussions he had with another student on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. According to the WSJ, Mael was summoned to Dean of Students Jamele Adams’s office last October to face charges of “harassment,” “religious discrimination,” and “bullying” based on exchanges that took place a year earlier. According to Mael, he was not allowed to keep a copy of the complaint against him and was initially told he needed to respond within two days. It was not until Mael hired lawyers from the law firm Covington & Burling that Brandeis backed off.
In rebutting the WSJ article, Lawrence wrote:
Our university has an unyielding commitment to free speech and expression of ideas. No student would ever be sanctioned for holding a specific point of view. In the spirit of our namesake Justice Louis D. Brandeis, we will staunchly defend every student’s right to advocate for causes they hold dear.
President Lawrence’s letter is his entry into the contest. The rules are as follows: After a university gets caught engaging in censorship, the president issues a statement declaring the institution’s undying allegiance to the First Amendment. For instance, last month President Sally Mason tried to justify the University of Iowa’s censorship of artist-in-residence Serhat Tanyolacar’s anti-racism statue by invoking “our cherished traditions of free speech and open dialogue,” before going on to imply that she would be instituting further limitations on free expression in 2015.
Just as the Great and Terrible Oz ordered Dorothy and her friends to “pay no attention to that man behind the curtain,” Great and Terrible College Presidents command that the public pay no attention to their suppression of speech but be in awe of their commitment to the idea of free expression.
And thus Sevcenko’s Theorem emerges: The more blatant the censorship, the more pious the subsequent presidential invocation of the First Amendment will be.
Here, Lawrence’s “unyielding” commitment to free expression and “staunch” defense of students’ right to express themselves should arouse suspicion. Lawrence did not deny that Mael was involved in some sort of disciplinary process stemming from remarks made to another student regarding the situation in the Middle East, although he challenges some of the story’s particulars. Perhaps “[n]o student [at Brandeis] would ever be sanctioned for holding a specific point of view,” although that can’t be said about the faculty. But one doesn’t need to actually punish students for their speech in order to harm freedom of speech—all that is required is a credible threat of punishment if you want to chill speech on campus. Summoning a student to the Dean’s office because he said something rude in the course of a political discussion is antithetical to the fundamental purpose of a university. A commitment to free speech that doesn’t include ideas you might wish not to hear is meaningless.
As a private institution, Brandeis is not legally bound by the First Amendment. But the university clearly promises its students freedom of expression in official policy. (It had better; it is named after Justice Brandeis, after all!) If the President is going to invoke First Amendment principles to distract attention from Daniel Mael, then he also needs to acknowledge that those principles (and Brandeis’s guarantees in official policy) are there to protect Mr. Mael too.