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Syracuse Will Update Free Speech Policies After Israeli Filmmaker Disinvited, Reinvited

By September 7, 2016

Syracuse University announced yesterday in a campus-wide email that it will revamp its free speech policies, which currently earn FIRE’s poorest, “red light” rating.

While SU Chancellor Kent Syverud ascribed the changes to a summer spent reviewing policy recommendations from a campus coalition, including SU’s Working Group on Free Speech, the move is an undeniably timely one for SU: Just last week, the university found itself embroiled in an academic freedom controversy over the disinvitation—and ultimate reinvitation—of an Israeli filmmaker. The incident demonstrates precisely how a dysfunctional campus culture—which is prevalent on so many campuses today and blooms in the absence of speech-friendly policies—can so easily lead to censorship and viewpoint-based discrimination.

According to The Atlantic, Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan was invited to screen his documentary film The Settlers at a religion and film conference at SU in March 2017. A few weeks after the award-winning filmmaker was invited by one of the conference’s faculty organizers, he received an email from another of the organizers, Professor M. Gail Hamner of SU’s Department of Religion, stating the following:

I now am embarrassed to share that my SU colleagues, on hearing about my attempt to secure your presentation, have warned me that the BDS faction on campus will make matters very unpleasant for you and for me if you come. In particular my film colleague in English who granted me affiliated faculty in the film and screen studies program and who supported my proposal to the Humanities Council for this conference told me point blank that if I have not myself seen your film and cannot myself vouch for it to the Council, I will lose credibility with a number of film and Women/Gender studies colleagues. Sadly, I have not had the chance to see your film and can only vouch for it through my friend and through published reviews.

Clearly I am politically naive. I also feel tremendous shame in reneging on a half-offered invitation.

Let’s break this down: Dotan was disinvited because one or more members of the SU faculty feared professional repercussions for allowing a politically controversial film to be shown on campus. SU’s policies state that the university is “committed to the principle that freedom of discussion is essential to the search for truth and, consequently, welcomes and encourages the expression of dissent.” But rather than allowing the film to foster a discussion on Israeli politics, Professor Hamner disinvited Dotan because of the backlash she anticipated due to the topic of his film.

The unfettered debate and freedom of discussion promised by SU means nothing if university professors refuse to to uphold these principles in practice. Rather than shying away from politically charged films, professors should embrace such works and the ensuing discussions they raise. After all, if professors at SU or any university refused to show every film that potentially offended a faction on campus, very few noteworthy films could be shown at all.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time free speech has been stifled at SU: In 2011, SU expelled a school of education student for a Facebook comment, and the campus police threatened students with disciplinary action if they wore offensive Halloween costumes. In 2010, SU investigated a law student for his satirical blog about the law school. In other words, SU has a disturbing history of disrespect for the freedom of expression—a particularly ironic one, considering the First Amendment is emblazoned on its S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications.

Like these prior incidents, Dotan’s disinvitation is another instance where expression was stifled at SU merely because it might offend someone. It is also inherently misguided: Professor Hamner admitted that she had not even seen the film prior to disinviting Dotan. If she had, she might have realized that the film is actually critical of the Israeli settlers. Dotan was not too pleased, writing to the colleague who originally invited him:

Gail Hamner rejected the idea of inviting the film without seeing it! She didn’t even ask to see it. All she was concerned about is that BDS activists may not be happy with the screening of an Israeli film at Syracuse. That is really troubling. And that happens at a University, at a temple of freedom of speech, or so we want to believe.

Finally, the administration stepped in by re-inviting Dotan to screen his film. It issued several statements attributing the disinvitation controversy to a big misunderstanding and expounding on its opposition to the BDS movement and its support for free speech. However, the damage had already been done.

SU Associate Professor Miriam F. Elman, a faculty advisor to a campus Israeli-Palestinian dialogue group, tweeted about what she called a “blatant violation of #freespeech & academic freedom,” as well as the reversal:

FIRE eagerly awaits an update on SU’s soon-to-be-revised policies—ones we hope will encourage a culture of free expression on campus, and ensure a disinvitation like this one never happens again.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this post misstated the years in which SU investigated or punished student speech. Those dates have been corrected. FIRE regrets the errors.

Schools: Syracuse University