Barely a week ago, San Diego State University was celebrating a student who had proposed a summit on U.S. reparations for slavery and come up with a list of possible speakers, including some prominent ones.
It quickly turned into an “uh-oh” moment when some of the school’s faculty pointed out that one of the speakers has been accused of anti-Semitism — news that spilled onto social media, causing an uproar.
The summit still might happen. But SDSU quietly announced Monday that the student has revised the speakers list to avoid “those who have espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past.”
The problem “should have been caught much, much earlier,” said Peter Herman, an SDSU literature professor who brought the controversy to light last week in a local newspaper.
“This shows that the committees, faculty and administrators who approved this proposal either did so without vetting the summit’s speakers or they did the vetting and approved them anyway,” he said. “At the very least, they were irresponsible.”
The university says it thoughtfully considered the matter and took appropriate action. But campus emails and a newsletter show that SDSU — like universities nationwide — found itself grappling with a tough question:
How do we preserve free speech while minimizing the chances that someone will purposefully denigrate others?
The controversy arose from a Dec. 18 campus newsletter that highlighted four graduate students who had been awarded $170,000 in student money to develop programs that would improve the experience of black students.
The recipients included Terry Sivers, who proposed the summit on reparations for slavery, suggesting five speakers. He will receive $68,000 in student fees for the effort.
The speakers ranged from the renowned author Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ava Muhammad, a controversial minister and author who also speaks to students nationally on behalf of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.
Farrakhan has been accused of anti-Semitism by such organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Muhammad has drawn criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, which said in 2017 that she had referred to Jewish people as “godless” and that she had been “loudly sharing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories” espoused by Farrakhan.
Herman contacted SDSU administrators on Dec. 19 by email and asked about the wisdom of having Muhammad on the list.
He also told administrators that he was writing a story for the Times of San Diego and asked if they wanted to comment “on the appropriateness of student fees funding such speakers.
“Should people who espouse hate be invited to speak at SDSU?” he asked.
SDSU officials responded by emailing Herman that the speakers for the proposed summit had not been confirmed. Then they delivered a message that highlighted the complex and contradictory nature of the issue:
“In some cases, speakers may be invited to speak on a specific topic of interest despite having viewpoints in other areas that are not in alignment with the values and beliefs of our community,” SDSU said in the email.
“This does not mean, however, that speech intended to denigrate or dehumanize others based on their backgrounds or social identities is consistent with SDSU’s values — which it is not.”
The matter didn’t receive such a balanced response on Twitter. It elicited harsh comments, including some that were highly critical of SDSU.
The university tried to engage critics on Twitter, saying, “We strongly affirm SDSU will not stand for or support any anti-Semitism or actions that encourage hatred or violence of an individual or a group of people.”
That didn’t tamp things down. On Sunday, SDSU notified the Union-Tribune that it was consulting Jewish leaders about how to handle the matter.
The leaders included another member of its faculty, Risa Levitt, director of the Jewish Studies Program.
"[Muhammad] has been quite vocal about views that I would consider to be anti-Semitic,” Levitt told the Union-Tribune.
A couple of hours later, SDSU issued a new statement, saying the issue had largely been resolved, without adding a lot of specifics.
“We understand recent concerns about a student-led proposal approved for Student Success Fee (SSF) funding,” SDSU said. “The student (Sivers) has since opted to revise the program, and those speakers will not be confirmed to speak at SDSU. The university supports the student’s decision.”
SDSU added: “The student’s proposed speaker list previously included those who have espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past. We strongly reject anti-Semitic, and other disparaging messages and actions. SDSU will offer support to the student organizer to ensure that the original basis for the event — a critical exploration of slavery and reparations — can proceed.”
Sivers couldn’t be reached for comment. Neither could Muhammad. SDSU would not elaborate beyond its statements.
Robbins writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.