Op-Ed

Keeping campuses safe for free speech

Last week, my email inbox and Twitter feeds were flooded with hateful messages impugning my integrity. The source of this invective was a shadowy organization called Canary Mission, which maintains what it hopes will function as a blacklist of professors and students it accuses of “promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews on college campuses.” My public criticism of Israel’s policies of military occupation and apartheid — its unequal treatment of Palestinians — has earned me a spot on the list, there being no distinction, apparently, between criticism of the policies of a foreign power and “hatred” of an entire ethnic group.

Were I a more junior professor, or untenured — or a student — the charges it levels, although they are untrue, could be damaging. And that is the point: In language only recently excised from its website, Canary Mission makes explicit its intention “to ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.” Daniel Pipes — a prominent member of what the Center for American Progress calls “the Islamophobia misinformation experts” — writes approvingly of the project: Students should understand that “attacking” Israel “can damage … future careers.”

Targeting students from a position of cowardly anonymity is only the latest — and ugliest — stage in the well-funded project to shield Israel from criticism on campus, and it fits into a larger pattern. Last spring and this month, lurid posters appeared on the UCLA campus naming specific students and accusing them of supporting “terrorism” because they are members of student groups that dare to criticize Israeli policy. David Horowitz’ ironically named Freedom Center claimed responsibility for the posters.

These sorts of attacks on academic freedom, in which Israel’s defenders have played a disproportionate role, are all too common on campuses across the country, with devastating results. They have led to the intimidation of students, the silencing or firing of faculty and the cancellation of classes (as at UC Berkeley, where a class on Palestine and settler colonialism was reinstated only after faculty outrage).

The poisonous atmosphere on campuses is the subject of a new report by the writers organization PEN America: “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities.” Of primary concern, according to PEN, is the idea that students need to be shielded from exposure to ideas that make them feel uncomfortable, that certain kinds of speech can and should be prohibited through administrative or legislative fiat. As PEN warns, “an environment where too many offenses are considered impermissible or even punishable becomes sterile, constraining, and inimical to creativity.”

Such warnings are not new. “The presumption that students need to be protected rather than challenged in a classroom is at once infantilizing and anti-intellectual,” the American Assn. of University Professors noted in 2014. “It makes comfort a higher priority than intellectual engagement.” The association in that instance was being critical of “trigger warnings,” a call for professors to warn students of material that might cause an emotional reaction (including the kind of reaction that philosophers of past epochs — Edmund Burke comes to mind — went out of their way to praise as the sublime).

Like the university professors association, PEN takes a very skeptical view of such warnings to students. At the very least, the report argues, trigger warnings should not be imposed by administrators to “ensure that every possibly upsetting encounter with course material is averted.” 

The report takes a similarly skeptical view of another recent idea, the creation of “safe spaces” on campuses. “It is neither possible nor desirable for the campus to offer protection from all ideas and speech that may cause a measure of damage,” the report notes. “Insisting that the campus be kept safe from all these forms of harm would create a hermetically sealed intellectual environment where inhabitants could traffic only in preapproved ideas.”

What’s worse, the report adds, is the way in which these claims of the need for protection are feeding into the rampant discourse of consumer rights and choices that universities themselves are fostering by treating students as though they are customers in a shop, paying for “good service” and “satisfaction” rather than academic challenge or even — God forbid — that intellectual shock which in former ages was called learning.

Of course, as the PEN report makes clear, the tricky part of free speech is that even malign calls for its suppression are entitled to be heard within reason.

In order for universities to fulfill their mission — which is precisely to expose students to the whole universe of ideas — messy and contentious debates, advocacy and arguments will continue. What we urgently need, however, are ways to distinguish between feelings of discomfort caused by exposure to new or even shocking ideas, and actual vulnerability caused by a campaign that singles out individuals explicitly, intending to cause them harm. Policing ideas and regulating speech on campus is one thing; shielding the “ivory tower” from true harassment is another.

The posters that have gone up at UCLA targeting students by name accused them of “Jew hatred.” The attacks have been swiftly, correctly, countered by the university. UCLA’s vice chancellor for equity, diversity and inclusion, Jerry Kang, called the posters “a focused, personalized intimidation that threatens specific members of our Bruin community.” Uncomfortable ideas are not just welcome, they are also necessary on university campuses, but all points of view need to be expressed without fear of blacklisting and ad hominem character assassination.

Saree Makdisi is a professor of English and comparative literature at UCLA. His most recent book is “Reading William Blake.”

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