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Montgomery College student and faculty groups’ film screening canceled just minutes after college president’s 11th hour condemnation

Cancellation illustrates wisdom of colleges adopting a policy of institutional neutrality.
Germantown Campus of Montgomery College a public community college in Montgomery County Maryland

For the second time in two months, Montgomery College President Jermaine Williams has threatened free expression on campus with his speech-chilling public comments. In March, Williams publicly condemned panelists’ comments after a virtual discussion about the historical relationship and present-day struggles of Palestinians and Africans. More recently, he targeted a film screening organized by two student and faculty groups, resulting in the event’s cancellation in the immediate wake of his rebuke.

The 2016 documentary, “The Occupation of the American Mind,” alleges Israel has engaged in a “public relations war” to “shape American media coverage of the [Israeli-Palestinian] conflict.” The film has drawn controversy in the past: When Takoma Park, a city that, like the college, is in Montgomery County, Maryland, planned to screen the film in 2019 as part of its “We Are Takoma” film series, opposition from local advocates led to an initial cancellation before the screening eventually proceeded several weeks later (in combination with a discussion panel). 

Given this history, it is perhaps unsurprising the planned Montgomery College screening garnered fierce debate. And that debate is good — a public college is an appropriate forum for discussion, argument, and disagreement about the value of particular ideas. But when a college’s administration weighs in on one side, the result is too often an end to debate. That’s exactly how it played out at Montgomery College. 

Less than thirty minutes before the scheduled screening on campus, Williams sent a college-wide email condemning the film, asserting it “depicts antisemitic tropes and fosters antisemitism,” then adding the film was “causing fear, anxiety, and distress for many in our community.” 

Williams claimed a commitment to “foster[ing] a vibrant intellectual environment” at Montgomery College, but quickly qualified that by insisting that “discourse . . . is done with civility and in a way that creates a safe space for true dialogue and understanding.” And in the event anyone missed the import of his condemnation, he concluded, “organizers of this event should forgo its viewing.” 

Adopting a policy of institutional neutrality as outlined in the Kalven Report offers Montgomery College a viable path forward. It would be wise to take it.

The student and faculty groups who had sponsored the screening immediately canceled it. 

Ironically — or, in retrospect, perhaps not — the cancellation came not two weeks after Williams assured FIRE he was committed to protecting free speech on campus and would consider adopting a position of institutional neutrality. That supposed commitment came after we wrote Williams to criticize his March condemnation of the panelists, explaining that his statement would likely chill speech on campus because it implied such commentary would not be tolerated. 

At the time, we stressed the importance of adopting an official policy of “institutional neutrality” to avoid chilling future speech, similar to that espoused in the University of Chicago’s Kalven Report. 

Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression

The wisdom of the University of Chicago’s ‘Kalven Report’


Since 1999, FIRE has defended the expressive rights of students and faculty — and like the First Amendment itself, we defend speech without regard to the speaker’s ideology, politics, or viewpoint.

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The Kalven Report was the product of a faculty committee convened in 1967 to examine the university’s role in political and social action. It concluded that the university itself must remain neutral if it was to remain faithful to its core mission: “the discovery, improvement, and dissemination of knowledge.” 

The committee understood that placing the university on one side of a current political debate meant it would no longer be able to “embrace, be hospitable to, and encourage the widest diversity of views within its own community” — a necessary condition if it is to fulfill its knowledge-seeking mission. The university, the report said, “is the home and sponsor of critics; it is not itself the critic.” 

Yet, here we are again with Montgomery College. And this time, the speech-chilling consequences of Williams’ castigation of the film screening were immediate and unmistakable. 

As we wrote in our letter to Montgomery College last week:

Even if you did not explicitly call for its cancellation, by condemning the screening of The Occupation of the American Mind, you once again suggested that Montgomery College may restrict and punish unpopular expression regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Constitutionally, it cannot. Combined with your earlier public condemnation of panelists’ anti-Israel comments during a March 7 virtual discussion, it is clear you are creating a campus environment that discourages open disagreement on this topic.

Montgomery College’s current approach of publicly condemning anti-Israel speech creates a campus environment that discourages open disagreement on the topic of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Adopting a policy of institutional neutrality as outlined in the Kalven Report offers Montgomery College a viable path forward. It would be wise to take it.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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