Those Columbia protesters are no free-speech martyrs

The crackdowns on pro-Palestine encampments are wrongheaded, but there is no right to occupy campus indefinitely.

Wendy Kaminer

Topics Free Speech Politics USA

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It’s impossible to know how many students occupying American campuses nationwide in opposition to Israel’s existence, as well as its conduct of the war, genuinely care about the people trapped in Gaza. Some do, no doubt; some count family or friends among the war’s victims. Others, I suspect, are driven by self-interest in declaring themselves on the side of ‘good’ in what they deem a Manichaean battle with Zionist ‘evil’.

Virtually none seems to have any knowledge or understanding of First Amendment rights. Put aside the fact that the US Constitution applies to government actors, not private entities like colleges and universities. The protesters also display no understanding of the First Amendment’s animating free-speech principles, to which they aggressively lay claim. Like the Occupy Wall Street protesters of 2011, they selfishly imagine a free-speech right to appropriate public or communal property indefinitely, denying everyone else equal rights to use the occupied space or adjoining spaces – like classrooms.

They also wrongly imagine that free speech includes freedom to subject identifiably Jewish students to severe, targeted harassment and threats. In fact, and under law, this qualifies as actionable discrimination. (Students would agree if the speech or conduct at issue were aimed at their friends and allies.) As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) explains, harassment amounts to discrimination when it is ‘so severe, pervasive and objectively offensive that it denies its target access to educational opportunities or benefits’.

You could characterise as hypocrisy the woke protesters’ expansive views of their own free-speech rights, given their longstanding demands for ‘safe spaces’ that censor speech they find offensive, equating it with physical assaults. As the Wall Street Journal has observed, with only a little exaggeration: ‘Those who once claimed speech is violence now claim violence is speech.’ But calling these students hypocrites might credit them with self-knowledge they lack. If you sincerely believe that free speech only extends to your irrefutable concepts of ‘good’ speech, it’s not inconsistent to deny protection to speech you label bad.

How should university administrators address prolonged, exclusionary encampments and other disruptive protests? It’s a somewhat moot question now, in the wake of a series of police raids on campuses from Columbia to the University of Southern California. In most if not all cases, using police to corral student protesters is both wrong and stupid. Wrong because police raids often involve excessive force against at least some peaceful protesters. Stupid because the raids only encourage more protests and turn students for whom free speech is a convenient defence, not a consistent principle, into free-speech martyrs.

Indeed, the recent spate of protests were fuelled by the initial police raid on Columbia University occupiers earlier this month. Columbia president Nemat Shafik has now turned to ‘negotiations’, having given protesters negotiating power they didn’t deserve. It’s unlikely the students will succeed in forcing Columbia to cut off all financial and academic ties to Israel, as universities nationwide are being urged to do. In any case, divestment is impractical and ineffective, as Megan McArdle explains in the Washington Post.

But students focussed on displaying their own righteousness may be oblivious to practicalities, and simply bringing Columbia to a negotiating table was a win for them. Shafik would have been better off calling for remote classes, as she eventually did last Monday, and leaving the encampment alone until students tired of it. When a toddler throws a tantrum by banging his head against the wall, put him on all fours, let him bang his head on the carpet and walk away, childcare experts once advised.

Call them Palestinian-liberation protests or anti-Semitic tantrums, in either case they may well continue until graduation, forcing cancellation of ceremonies. They will re-emerge with a vengeance in Chicago at the August Democratic National Convention, evoking the spectre of 1968. Back then, the anti-war protests at the Democrats’ convention sparked a violent, televised police response that helped Richard Nixon ascend to the presidency. Convention protests, like the occupations now sweeping campuses, are a nightmare for Joe Biden and a wet dream for Donald Trump.

So what will be the likely effect of these protests? They will surely not persuade Israel’s defenders to change or modify their views. But protesters seem uninterested in persuasion and are intent, instead, on intimidation. Consider off-campus activists who express their opposition to the war by blocking highways and bridges, infuriating and potentially endangering their fellow citizens. Listen to Khymani James, a leader of the Columbia protests. ‘Zionists, along with all white supremacists, need to not exist because they actively kill and harm vulnerable people’, he declared. Equating Zionism with white supremacism, he echoes the mindless and murderous trope of fashionably woke anti-Semitism. ‘Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists’, he also said, in a video he proudly posted of himself. He hopes to enter Congress someday.

James’s absolute certainty about his own righteousness is echoed only a bit less dramatically by grown-up pro-Palestinian protesters. PEN America has cancelled a spring awards ceremony and annual festival because of protests by writers disgusted with its failure to denounce Israel unequivocally. An open protest letter acknowledged that PEN supports ‘the right to disagree’, but insists that ‘among writers of conscience, there is no disagreement. There is fact and fiction. The fact is that Israel is leading a genocide of the Palestinian people.’

This is a startlingly dumb and arrogant statement coming from writers, who depend on free-speech norms, including respect for dissent. They are writers by profession, but perhaps only in service to a calling as progressive evangelists. Characterising their opinions as undeniable facts, declaring what all writers of conscience must believe, their absolutism is depressingly familiar. It has taken the place of argument among ideologues right and left and helps fuel campus protests.

In the end, it engenders political nihilism. If there are no grey areas to debate, then everyone who is not with you entirely is against you, irredeemably.

Today’s student protests and coming disruptions of the 2024 Democratic convention can help Donald Trump regain the presidency and enact policies much more damaging to Palestinian aspirations (and woke values in general) than Joe Biden might imagine. Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, has recommended moving people out of Gaza to spur development of its potentially valuable waterfront. If he or other developers gain the power to do so, Palestine’s would-be liberators can take solace in their political purity – the prize on which so many keep their eyes.

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.

Picture by: Getty.

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Topics Free Speech Politics USA


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