A task force appointed by the president of the University of California has recommended that the school adopt a code banning hate speech on campus as part of an effort to combat what it sees as an anti-Semitic atmosphere. The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has rightly suggested that this is the wrong approach. Campus speech codes have been struck down by courts time and again. Public universities have almost no constitutional leg to stand on when it comes to speech codes.
That being said, the climate on campus toward Jewish students and Jewish groups has certainly gotten out of hand in recent years. Here’s how the task force describes the matter at UC:
On every campus pro-Zionist Jewish students described an environment in which they feel isolated and many times harassed and intimidated by students, faculty and outsiders who participate in these activities. Most often students expressed the perception of a double standard, insensitivity, and a lack of understanding on the part of faculty and administrators regarding the depth of what Jewish students experience as a result of a movement that is directed at the Jewish state using imagery and accusations evocative of historical campaigns against Jews. A Jewish student at UC Davis described being told that the Star of David was a symbol of hate. A student at UC Santa Cruz who served in the Israeli military described frequently being called a “baby killer.” As another student at UC Santa Cruz put it, “I wish I could actually get to a discussion about the Israeli occupation and Israel’s policies [with the protesters] because there is much to discuss. Unfortunately, it is hard to get to that point because I and other students who support Israel are constantly confronted with the argument that there is no benefit to dialogue because Israel simply has no right to exist”.
The situation is deplorable, but before we advise speech codes for students (a step that would certainly meet with constitutional challenges), it would be worth it to think about how things came to this point. For one thing, colleges and universities have allowed professors to turn to their classrooms into political arenas, bringing up topics that are plainly irrelevant to the subject at hand. A Jewish student at Columbia was recently advised not to take a particular Middle East Studies class because the professor was going to be sure to offend her. Entire disciplines have become politicized as well — particularly Middle East Studies. And those who deviate from the orthodoxy — that the State of Israel is oppressing the Palestinian people and does not deserve to exist — are vilified.
The universities have not done very much to promote an atmosphere of civility — which is different from promoting a speech code. In 2010, David Horowitz came to UC Santa Barbara and asked the audience whether any members of the Muslim Student Association would denounce Hamas? In response one audience member shouted “No” and several students and faculty proceeded to heckle Horowitz. The fact that faculty were involved in shouting down a speaker should strike us as particularly problematic.
Let’s say the students don’t know any better. But when someone is invited as an officially sponsored lecturer on a campus, the choices for registering disagreement should be a) not attending, b) picketing outside, c) not applauding at the end of the speech, d) asking pointed questions, or e) offering an alternative speech at the same time or a later event with a speaker who would refute those views. Those are part of the exercise of free speech. Administrators should not permit hecklers and faculty members who try to shout down a speaker should be subject to some sort of sanction. They are setting an extraordinarily poor example.
Ideally, university administrators should be promoting real debates on the hot-button topics of the day. Too few students even attend lectures by speakers with opposing viewpoints (except with the intention of heckling). It would be useful to for students to listen to two speakers (even two faculty members) participate in a formal debate. One could even (along the lines of the Intelligence Squared Debates) ask audiences to vote for the winner at the end. (At Intelligence Squared events, the winner is determined by the side that gains the most votes from the beginning of the speech to the end).
Universities are ideally training informed citizens. As citizens we are entitled to speak our minds, but we are also tasked with being informed about both sides of the important issues of the day. Many institutions of higher education are failing to promote this kind of understanding.