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They’re all censors now

The rise of campus anti-Semitism has exposed the free-speech hypocrisy of left and right.

Wendy Kaminer
columnist

Topics Free Speech Identity Politics Politics USA

If there was a silver lining to the demagoguery that characterised this week’s congressional hearing on anti-Semitism at elite American universities, it was the exposure of hypocrisy on all sides. Right-wing Republican congresswoman Elise Stefanik pretended to care deeply about anti-Semitism, despite her promotion of anti-Semitic ‘replacement theories’, as Ken White observes. For their part, the university presidents pretended to be free-speech advocates, despite an epidemic of campus censorship, dating back decades.

Pressed by an ostensibly outraged Stefanik to answer a complicated question about suppressing anti-Semitic speech with a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) correctly pointed out that endorsing an ‘intifada’ was not necessarily the equivalent of actionable harassment or an actionable, targeted threat. Context matters, as they noted. Calling loudly for an intifada while shadowing a Jewish student on campus may be harassment. But supporting violent Palestinian ‘resistance’ to Israel during a classroom discussion is, or should be, protected speech.

This endorsement of speech rights on campus is long overdue, especially at Harvard, which has an ‘abysmal’ record on protecting speech, according to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Testifying before congress, Harvard president Claudine Gay took refuge in the complexities of restricting arguably anti-Semitic rhetoric, without acknowledging that Harvard, among many other schools, has long punished much less inflammatory speech than references to an intifada or shouts of ‘From the river to the sea’ (a coded call for the destruction of Israel) – so long as the speech was deemed offensive by a member of a presumptively marginalised group. Jews are not considered marginalised by otherwise censorious ‘progressives’ who dismiss or endorse anti-Semitic speech precisely because they embrace anti-Semitic tropes about Jewish power and privilege.

As FIRE observes: ‘College administrators… will reach for speech codes when certain disfavoured views are expressed, yet don the cloak of free speech when they are more sympathetic to the speech at issue. Speech codes depend for their very existence on the exercise of double standards…’

I would not accuse the presidents of Harvard, Penn, MIT or other institutions of sympathy with anti-Semitic speech. I suspect many simply pander reflexively to prevalent campus biases in administering speech and harassment codes. But they can surely be accused of double standards, placing them firmly on the side of censorship. Free speech requires content-neutrality – the application of a single standard to all disputed speech.

We may hope in vain that any standards beleaguered university presidents now invoke will protect all speech, regardless of content or ideology, including allegedly hateful advocacy that does not cross the line to conduct. FIRE laments that before resigning in the wake of her congressional testimony, now former University of Pennsylvania president Liz Magill, under fire from wealthy donors, demanded an immediate review of Penn policies, which suggested ‘an institutional willingness to abandon free expression altogether’.

That will likely make congresswoman Stefanik and her colleagues happy, so long as it results primarily in the suppression of left-wing and anti-Zionist speech. Some Democrats who have joined in attacking the university presidents for their free-speech defences will also welcome punishment of pro-Palestinian speakers and organisations. Almost everyone, right and left, applies double standards to speech. Progressive and right-wing culture warriors alike denounce censorship when it silences their fellow travellers and support it when it targets their ideological enemies.

Generally, anti-Zionists are included among enemies of the right, partly due to strong support for the state of Israel among evangelicals, which stems in no small part from beliefs about Biblical prophecies and ‘end times’. There are, of course, exceptions to right-wing Zionism: Republican congressman Thomas Massie recently suggested that Zionism runs counter to ‘American patriotism’. But while they expect Jews to end up in hell, evangelicals who power the right are among Israel’s strongest American supporters. Just as anti-Zionism doesn’t necessarily embrace anti-Semitism, pro-Zionism doesn’t necessarily exclude it.

The Republican-led House Committee on Education has announced an investigation of campus anti-Semitism that will include ‘substantial documents requests’ and subpoenas. Denouncing anti-Semitism on the left, congressional Republicans will continue to ignore or excuse anti-Semitism on the right and the mainstreaming of white Christian nationalism during the past decade. Anti-Semitism as well as free speech – for me and not for thee.

Wendy Kaminer is an author, a lawyer and a former national board member of the American Civil Liberties Union. Her books include A Fearful Freedom: Women’s Flight from Equality.

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Topics Free Speech Identity Politics Politics USA

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