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UC panel hears competing claims about anti-bias rules and free speech

UC panel hears competing claims about anti-bias rules and free speech
UC regent Eddie Island is chairing the committee seeking to develop policies against bias.

Dozens of speakers representing a variety of views testified Monday at UCLA before a university committee facing the difficult task of crafting an anti-bias policy without violating free speech.

The panel of UC regents, faculty and administrators was appointed in September after the full board of regents rejected a previously proposed and controversial statement against intolerance that was deemed too vague and not strong enough in condemning incidents of anti-Semitism.

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The committee's eight members are expected to draft a new statement and present it to the regents by March, officials said.

On Monday, some speakers again urged the university to adopt the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism that includes the demonizing of Israel and denial of that nation's right to exist. Those speakers alleged that campus protests against Israeli policies regarding Palestinians often take on anti-Semitic overtones. They said that the adoption of such a policy would not chill free speech since such no punishments would be prescribed for participating in such protests.

Among those speaking in favor of the State Department definition was UC Santa Cruz lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin. She said that a recent survey showed that "many Jewish students are targeted, harassed and intimidated regardless of how they feel about Israel."

She said that UC has an obligation to provide a "safe environment" for Jewish students just as the university strives to do so for other racial, ethnic and gender minorities while still protecting free speech, according to a statement from Rossman-Benjamin, who is director of AMCHA Initiative, an organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses.

In contrast, Estee Chandler, the Los Angeles organizer of the Jewish Voice for Peace organization, said that Jewish students who speak up for Palestinian rights wind up being harassed by groups that strongly defend Israeli policies. She said that the adoption of the U.S. State Department definition of anti-Semitism "would be very problematic" and would damage the ability to express free opinions.

It would "limit the range of political inquiry, awareness, expression and education on campus," said Chandler, who is Jewish and has Israeli relatives.

The special committee is chaired by UC regent Eddie Island and includes other regents Norman Pattiz, John A. Pérez and Bruce Varner; student regent Avi Oved; UC Davis Chancellor Linda Katehi; UC Academic Council Chair Dan Hare; and UC Vice Provost for Diversity and Engagement Yvette Gullatt.

Pérez, former state Assembly speaker, said Monday that the panel will remain in listening mode for months, and will meet in subsequent sessions with experts on issues of discrimination and free speech.  He said the committee will not be bound by any parts of the statement withdrawn in September and is starting from scratch to develop new policies regarding intolerance on campuses while also supporting free speech.

"If it wasn't difficult, we would be there already," Pérez said Monday of the effort.

The current debate arose in part as a result of several troubling incidents this year at UC schools, including the defacing in January of a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis with Nazi swastikas. In February, several student government leaders at UCLA questioned a student's eligibility for a campus judicial panel because she is Jewish; those leaders later apologized and the student was unanimously approved for the position.

The proposed policy statement withdrawn last month condemned ethnic, religious and gender bias and sought to "reflect the university's core values of respect, inclusion, academic freedom and a free and open exchange of ideas."  It did not include any specific punishments, although officials say the long-standing policies allow for sanctions, including suspension and expulsion, for such acts as assaults and racist graffiti.

The previous statement included a "non-exhaustive list" of actions it said "do not reflect the university's values of inclusion and tolerance." Among those: vandalism and graffiti with symbols of hate, including swastikas and nooses; questioning a student's fitness for a leadership role based on race, religion, ethnicity, gender and other factors; and depicting ethnic or racial groups as less ambitious, less talented or more threatening than others.

Follow me @larrygordonlat

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