Table of Contents

More colleges threaten to restrict speech in wake of Penn president’s resignation

Institutions abandon their free speech protections at students’ peril.
Protests at Arizona State University after the campus canceled an event where Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib was to speak on Palestine

Joel Angel Juarez / The Arizona Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

Protests at Arizona State University after the campus canceled an event where Rep. Rashida Tlaib was to speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Nov. 17, 2023.

Free speech fallout continues from the disastrous congressional testimony on campus anti-Semitism given earlier this month by the presidents of Penn, MIT, and Harvard. Now, at least three other elite universities have announced that calls for genocide would violate their policies. Last week, FIRE wrote Stanford UniversityColumbia University, and Yale University, urging them to forgo revising their policies to punish speech that allegedly calls for genocide, because such an overbroad rule risks prohibiting protected speech including hyperbole, satire, or ambiguous language. 

Liz Magill, Claudine Gay, and Sally Kornbluth, presidents of Penn, Harvard, and MIT, respectively, received widespread criticism for their testimonies. They each accurately explained that the context is significant in whether speech that could be construed as a call for genocide violates their respective university’s policies. The backlash to their testimony was swift, with Magill resigning within days, and Gay narrowly surviving calls for her to do the same.

Now, in what appear to be attempts to avoid similar fates, Stanford, Yale, and Columbia have each publicly said calls for the genocide of Jews or other groups would categorically violate their own campus speech policies — presumably even if a student utters the word “intifada” unaware of its full context or significance to pro-Israel advocates. 

FIRE is concerned the number of universities changing policies to punish speech referencing genocide will continue to grow. We wrote each of these three universities to urge them to reverse course and refrain from punishing protected speech, noting the wisdom of securing their students’ free speech rights, and that their students can use that freedom to meet speech they dislike with counterspeech. 

Censoring incendiary political speech does not erase the deep disagreements between those on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other hot-button political issues.

For example, we told Yale: 

As an Ivy League university, Yale is uniquely situated to counter hateful speech with education instead of censorship. Using your institution’s profound power to enlighten and potentially eradicate hate is a far more effective alternative than attempting to suppress protected student and faculty speech. Yale can inform its campus community how the robust protection for political speech — of vital necessity in times of intense disagreement on global affairs — encompasses rhetorical hyperbole, the conceptual endorsement of violence, or assertions of the “moral propriety or even moral necessity for a resort to force or violence.” And it can explain how this protection balances the fundamental right to discuss public issues with universities’ obligation to ensure campus safety.

Punishing advocacy for violence — which is, without more, protected speech — may be a temporary salve for those most concerned about the present spike in anti-Semitism on campus, but censorship is a slippery slope. By choosing to weaken their commitments to free speech in this moment of controversy, universities send the clear message they will not stand by those commitments in the future, inviting pressure from those wishing the schools to censor any number of views. 

Moreover, accusations of calling for genocide do not solely implicate one side of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such claims could apply to advocates of Israel’s military response in Gaza, which critics have alleged constitutes genocide. They could also apply to pro-Palestinian advocates who chant slogans like, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which critics say constitute a call for the genocide of Jews. 

Barring speech that some may consider calls for genocide may also implicate other hot-button issues. That could include trans rights and abortion rights, as some trans activists argue those who wish to limit medical gender transition are waging a genocide against trans people, while some pro-life activists claim widespread abortion is a genocide of the unborn.  

Or take the example of Drexel University associate professor George Ciccariello-Maher, who posted a satirical tweet, “All I Want for Christmas is White Genocide” on Christmas Eve in 2016. The tweet poked fun at a common conspiracy theory believed by many white supremacists. Ciccariello-Maher eventually resigned from the university after being subjected to a months-long investigation for his clearly protected satirical speech. 

First Amendment standards reflect the wisdom and experience accumulated over decades that instruct how to protect expressive freedoms while balancing the right of individuals to be free from discriminatory harassment, intimidation, and true threats. That experience shows that censoring hateful rhetoric has never worked. In fact, where censorship is entertained, it often ends up used against the very people it was intended to protect

Censoring incendiary political speech does not erase the deep disagreements between those on opposite sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and other hot-button political issues. But it does chill genuine debate and discussion between those on opposing sides, a necessary precondition for finding common ground.


Recent Articles

FIRE’s award-winning Newsdesk covers the free speech news you need to stay informed.