by Robert Shibley at Forbes
Here in the United States, we’re fortunate to enjoy comparative peace from the seemingly endless Israeli-Palestinian conflict that rages on half a world away. Yet the dispute has led supporters of both sides to launch attacks on something important to all Americans: our freedom of speech. And our nation’s university campuses—the places where Americans should be most free to speak—have played host to a disproportionate number of these threats to free expression.
Just last week at Barnard College (part of Columbia University) in New York City, uproar over the hanging of a banner on Barnard Hall reading “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine” led to its removal by Barnard administrators. While the hanging of banners in that space has been a normal practice for recognized student groups (such as Columbia’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which hung the banner), Barnard has now pledged to “review” its policy and has declared it will not allow any more banners in the meantime.
Also last week, Northeastern University in Boston’s SJP chapter was suspended after it distributed obviously fake eviction notices in campus housing saying that similar notices were “routinely given to Palestinian families living under oppressive Israeli occupation.” Among the reasons for the suspension was the fact that Northeastern had previously required the group to submit a “Civility Statement” to the college that administrators evidently found to be insufficiently “civil.”
Only the week before, Brooklyn College president Karen Gould apologized for allowing a group of Jewish students to be kicked out of a forum hosted by the Brooklyn College SJP. The students’ apparent offense was holding papers that opposed SJP’s viewpoint. An event organizer unaffiliated with the college decided that this was disruptive and prevailed on Brooklyn College police officers to remove the students from the event, despite the fact that there was no real evidence that they had disrupted the event or done anything wrong.
And an ongoing story began in December when the American Studies Association announced it would boycott formal collaborations with Israeli academic institutions as well as any scholars who represent those institutions or the Israeli government. This has been widely condemned by prominent groups like the American Association of University Professors (AAUP). In response, several states and the U.S. Congress are actively considering bills that would cut various forms of government funding to academic departments or institutions that continue to be associated with the American Studies Association. This has likewise been condemned by the AAUP and other groups.
While these actions to silence or punish one’s opponents will likely to do nothing to bring conflict in the Middle East to an end, they are certainly hurting us here in America. Every time we allow an opinion to be silenced, Americans’ rights to express their beliefs and freely hear the expression of others’ beliefs are damaged. And on college campuses, that means students’ educations are being damaged too.
While feelings surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict run hot on both sides, we cannot allow that to serve as justification for jettisoning the constitutional norms of free expression that have served this country since its founding. There will always be some who wish to sacrifice free speech for current political gain on one issue or another. But it’s the job of free people in a free society to resist the temptation to do so, and it’s the job of college campuses as the “marketplace of ideas” not to indulge that temptation.
Those engaged in the battle of ideas must remember that it’s foolish to expect opinions formed through silencing the other side to have the hardiness and lasting impact of actual persuasion. In On Liberty, philosopher John Stuart Mill observed that even if a position is true, unless that belief is “vigorously and earnestly contested, it will, by most of those who receive it, be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or feeling of its rational grounds … preventing the growth of any real and heartfelt conviction, from reason or personal experience.”
Even if you don’t care about the Middle East at all, you should care that a generation of college students is being taught that when debate gets heated, censorship is the answer. That’s a disastrous lesson for a country that has always allowed speech to answer speech.
Nobody doubts the sincerity of those who have strong feelings on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But if those advocates wish to actually convince others that they are right in a meaningful and lasting way, they need to focus on making the best arguments they can—and our nation’s campuses must do better in resisting the demands of those who wish to silence their opponents instead.
Robert Shibley, an attorney, is Senior Vice President of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).