A BDS protest in Montreal, Canada.

Free speech and the BDS problem



Free speech and the BDS problem

A BDS protest in Montreal, Canada.

In 1977, the National Socialist Party of America tried to hold a rally in a park district of Skokie, Illinois. Skokie had a predominantly Jewish population that included many Holocaust survivors. A district court issued an injunction prohibiting the rally from taking place, based on arguments from the mayor and others that the appearance of Nazi demonstrators could lead to violence. But the U.S. Supreme Court held that the NSPA’s right to seek a suspension of the injunction had been violated. When free speech is in question, the Court affirmed, all procedural safeguards must be afforded, even to groups that propagate reprehensible speech.

Today, my university, UMass Amherst, seems to be in a similar position. A rally featuring prominent BDS activists Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, and others is scheduled to take place in the university’s Fine Arts Center. A number of Jewish organizations have urged the university to prohibit the event because the speakers are reputed to be anti-Semitic. And three Jewish UMass students have filed for an injunction to move the event off the UMass campus.

Is this déjà vu or a new problem?

This is not Skokie. To be clear: I am not saying that I support an injunction that would ban the event. I am a free speech advocate. I also fear that banning this event will tend to increase support for BDS. But for three important reasons, I consider the BDS event different from Skokie.

1. The UMass campus is not a generic public space but is an educational institution committed to excluding hate speech. The university has a campaign called “Hate Has No Home at UMass.” Public expressions of racism and anti-Semitism are isolated and condemned. Additionally, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy made a statement against BDS on May 4, 2016. The Chancellor announced his opposition to “academic boycotts of any kind.” He added, “the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is no exception.” The BDS event, also scheduled on May 4, is an assault on the university’s leadership and the values it tries to uphold.

BDS has a track record of demonizing Israel and blaming it unilaterally for the Palestinian problem. The speakers scheduled to appear at UMass have made comments that many Jewish organizations construe as anti-Semitic. The students requesting an injunction have argued that the university is violating its own policies by hosting the BDS event.

Caught between the need to defend free speech and the need to discourage hate speech, Subbaswamy has affirmed that the university will not prohibit the event but that the university will not provide any funding for it either. He noted too, of course, that the university does not endorse the views of the BDS speakers. But in reality, the university has become entangled with the event.

2. Several university depart­ments are sponsoring the event. As I write this, the departments of Women’s Studies and Communication as well as some­­thing called “The Resistance Studies Initiative” are listed as sponsors on the fliers for the BDS rally. By the time the event takes place, several other departments may join the bandwagon.

At UMass, there is no consistent meaning behind the act of sponsoring an event. It usually means that a department has contributed funds to make the event happen. Since the Chancellor has prohibited the use of funds, sponsoring the event might mean something like, “If we could give money to support this event, we would.”

Traditionally, academic departments only sponsor academic lectures and debates. When political speakers appear on campus, they are usually sponsored by the political clubs run by students. A UMass professor who is an organizer of the BDS event has defended departmental sponsorship by observing that “Israel advocate Dennis Ross … spoke on campus with sponsorship of many mainstream groups and there was no balance, and no one tried to shut that down.” In reality, the Ross lecture was organized by the Student Alliance for Israel and two other student clubs, the UMass Democrats and UMass Republicans. The flier for the event mentioned no academic departments.

3. The BDS event is not only sponsored by some of the academic units on campus, it is organized with major input from the faculty. Professor Sut Jhally, the Chairman of the Communication Department is one of the leading organizers. The Chancellor has stated that the BDS event is the effort of a “private foundation” and not the university. But the Media Education Foundation, which is producing the event, was founded by none other than Jhally, who has also served as its long-term Executive Director.

University professors are supposed to be politically neutral. Academic administrators have the utmost obligation to avoid partisanship. In a recent email to the campus, the Chancellor reminded the faculty of the obligations that we have to be politically nonpartisan. His message was valuable. But it has taken massive protest on the part of Jewish organizations and a lawsuit by Jewish students to get our campus leader to make his statement about the importance of political neutrality.

The politicization of academic life on the UMass campus has been out of control for many years. Efforts to restore traditional concepts of academic neutrality are scorned by radical academics who may or may not support BDS but who all believe that since “everything is political,” none of us have any duty to repress our personal viewpoints.

If there is one good thing about the BDS event, it’s this. By sparking a huge reaction from Jewish people, it may well remind our campus administrators that they need to deal with not one but two fundamental problems in American universities: the rise of anti-Semitism, on the one hand, and the general decline of academic integrity, on the other. Once again, we Jews, by representing ourselves, are representing a wider human cause.

Daniel Gordon is a Professor of History at UMass Amherst.

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