First they censor Palestine …

Campus administrators are often more protective of the rights of right-wing extremists than of the people their ideologies target and victimize. (Thomas Hawk)

Three students at Barnard College, which is affiliated with New York’s Columbia University, are facing punishment for protesting a speech earlier this month by a notorious white supremacist.

Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, the British Islamophobe and English Defence League founder who goes by the pseudonym Tommy Robinson, spoke to Columbia students via Skype on 10 October.

According to campus newspaper The Columbia Spectator, dozens of students interrupted Robinson’s speech and held up signs, while 250 more protested outside the venue.

Almost 5,000 people have signed a petition supporting the students, and mobilizations to defend them are being organized on campus.

“By attempting to silence protesters while providing space and funds for hate speech at Columbia, Suzanne Goldberg and other university administrators are demonstrating complicity with violent ideologues whose claims continue to actively harm historically marginalized students,” the petition states.

The petition quotes a mass email from Columbia vice-president Suzanne Goldberg that “it is foundational to Columbia’s learning and teaching missions that we allow for the contestation of ideas, as President Bollinger has often made clear.”

If Goldberg and university president Lee Bollinger “truly believed in open dialogue and the ‘contestation of ideas,’ they would not be threatening student protesters with disciplinary action,” the petition states.

Selective freedom

A few days after the protest, university provost John Coatsworth issued another mass email with the subject line “Statement on disrupting speakers.”

“As President Bollinger made clear in his Commencement Address last May, freedom of speech is a core value of our institution,” Coatsworth wrote. “The university is committed to defend the right of all the members of our community to exercise their right to invite, listen to and challenge speakers whose views may be offensive and even hurtful to many of us. It is the duty of every member of the community to help preserve freedom of speech for all, including protesters.”

Such arguments might be persuasive in a hypothetical world where elite universities actually provide equal access and support to all viewpoints.

But in reality, these increasingly corporatized institutions privilege speech by the powerful while marginalizing those who actually challenge orthodoxies and centers of power.

A glaring example of that is Harvard University’s decision in September to rescind a fellowship to Chelsea Manning, after an objection from CIA director Mike Pompeo.

Manning’s courageous and personally costly leaking of classified information brought to light some of the most brutal US war crimes in Iraq – crimes for which no one has yet been held to account.

Meanwhile, Harvard offers a comfortable retreat for all manner of miscreants, from Afghanistan and Iraq war general David Petraeus (convicted in 2015 of passing classified information to his girlfriend), to former Trump spokesperson Sean Spicer.

Harvard even has special programs to fund dozens of Israeli government officials to attend the university.

Alums include a host of senior officers of the Israeli military.

Censorship through “civility”

The Columbia crackdown on students protesting a white supremacist fulfills the prediction that censorship of campus speech related to Palestine – often under the banner of promoting “civility” – would be the test case later expanded to silence other forms of dissent.

“Using the Question of the Palestinians and Israel as the entry point to suppress dissent inside the walls of the academy is both tactical and strategic,” Columbia professor Joseph Massad wrote for The Electronic Intifada in 2014.

“It is tactical because once successful, it would take away key aspects of faculty governance and transfer them to neoliberal university administrations, and would set a precedent and an ensuing chilling effect on other, perhaps even more dangerous, kinds of dissent that command larger public support than do the Palestinians,” Massad added.

Massad was writing amid the protests over the University of Illinois’ firing of Steven Salaita over his tweets criticizing Israel’s attack on Gaza – tweets university administrators deemed “uncivil.”

As the frequent target of anti-Palestinian witch-hunters, Massad can speak from experience.

More than a decade ago, the university set up a committee to investigate bogus charges of anti-Semitism against Columbia faculty including Massad. Its mandate was “to identify cases where there appear to be violations of the obligation to create a civil and tolerant teaching environment.”

After the months of inquisition endured by Massad, the committee concluded that the allegations were unsubstantiated and there was no evidence of anti-Semitism. This did not stop the vilification of Massad by pro-Israel groups and media, nor did it prompt an outpouring of support for his free speech rights from liberal commentators.

Yet the same kinds of arguments and tactics rooted in a concern for civility are now being used by administrators to ensure that white supremacists and other bigots can appear on campuses unchallenged by students.

Not surprisingly, Columbia, which was founded from the profits of the slave trade, remains materially tied to the interests of white supremacists.

The university has been identified by liberal blog ThinkProgress as an investor in a hedge fund run by Robert Mercer, the co-owner of Breitbart and a major funder of white nationalists.

Those calling on Columbia to divest from white supremacy may however find themselves contending with the arguments and tactics honed for use against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement for Palestinian rights.

Targeting “intersectionality”

Israel lobby stalwart and retired Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz appears determined to use Columbia as a proving ground for censorship of dissent, especially from the left.

In late September, Dershowitz, one of the most ubiquitous and high-profile media commentators, wrote an article in New York’s Daily News painting himself as an embattled “centrist liberal” who was scheduled to speak at the Columbia campus to share his “moderate” ideas.

Dershowitz cited “reports in the media” to claim that “radical students plan to disrupt my speech in an effort to prevent me from sharing my moderate ideas with Columbia students.”

“I expect that my speech will be protested not only by anti-Israel and anti-Semitic students and outsiders, but also by some radical feminists, gay rights activists, Black Lives Matter supporters and others who, under the false banner of ‘intersectionality,’ believe they must stand together against their common oppressors,” Dershowitz predicted.

To his apparent dismay, no such protests or disruptions materialized when he spoke on campus this week.

But in the Daily News article, Dershowitz had made clear what he demanded of the university: “I expect Columbia to assure not only my physical safety and the physical safety of those students who come to listen to me, but also my ability to communicate my views to open-minded students.”

In other words, Dershowitz wanted the university to discipline and punish the feminist, LGBTQ, Black Lives Matter and “anti-Israel” activists he hoped would show up.

As an authority for his position, Dershowitz also cited Columbia president Bollinger’s 2017 commencement speech.

Free speech for the powerful

Right-wing ideologues are championing a notion of “free speech” which means, in effect, unfettered platforms for the already powerful, while the marginalized who seek a voice can be silenced under the banner of protecting that “freedom.”

Bret Stephens, the virulently anti-Palestinian New York Times columnist, is holding up University of Chicago president Robert Zimmer as a hero of this type of free speech.

The headline of Stephens’ recent column declares Zimmer “America’s best university president” because of his disdain for trigger warnings and his declaration that “we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”

What Stephens does not mention is the sheer hypocrisy of Zimmer’s statements. The University of Chicago does in fact create and condone “safe spaces” – but only for the powerful.

This is what it did when it banned media and imposed other severe speech restrictions for a university-sponsored lecture by Ehud Olmert in October 2009, weeks after a UN-commissioned independent inquiry found evidence of major war crimes in the December 2008 attack on Gaza Olmert had ordered as prime minister of Israel.

Faced with the university’s determination to provide Olmert with a privileged and unchallenged platform, dozens of people – including this writer – disrupted his speech.

We were not protesting Olmert’s opinions. We were protesting his actions, including the destruction of dozens of schools and universities in Gaza and the killing of hundreds of teachers and students.

But in the new concept of free speech promoted by universities like Columbia, the freedom of expression of racists and war criminals is to be cherished and protected far above the rights of their victims and those in solidarity with them to protest for their right not to be oppressed, exterminated or to have their history erased because of who they are.

The UC Berkeley campus was placed on lockdown for a 14 September speech by former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro. (Roger Jones)

In a stark example, the University of California at Berkeley was prepared to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to ensure that far-right demagogues could speak on campus.

In advance of a campus speech by right-wing anti-Palestinian pundit and former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro last month, Berkeley’s city council granted police permission to use pepper spray against “violent” protesters.

The campus was put on virtual lockdown for Shapiro’s 14 September speech.

Barely a year earlier, UC Berkeley administrators had censored a student-taught course on Palestine.

The censorship to come

Censorship around Palestine serves as a reliable guide of what will likely come next.

Concern about “incivility” operates “as a primary policing mechanism of dissident academics,” Massad wrote in 2014.

“Achieving this, however, would not be easy in a university culture that values academic freedom and freedom of opinion. A weak link in the chain of academic freedom had to be found, one around which people could more easily mobilize – one that could set a precedent. Enter the Question of the Palestinians and Israel.”

Earlier this year, New York’s Fordham University refused to allow the establishment of a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, claiming that the group would “encourage disruptive conduct” and contradict the college’s values of “civility.”

In April, students filed a federal lawsuit against Fordham, charging the private university with violating its own free expression policies and engaging in viewpoint discrimination.

The case has attracted little attention – at least none from the mainstream liberal and conservative pundits who chatter incessantly about free speech on campus while ignoring the pervasive censorship of views critical of Israel.

But much likely hangs on its outcome. If Fordham gets away with banning Students for Justice in Palestine, it won’t be too long before organizations challenging racism and white supremacy, police violence, mass incarceration or fracking could find themselves outlawed as well.

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Ali Abunimah

Ali Abunimah's picture

Co-founder of The Electronic Intifada and author of The Battle for Justice in Palestine, now out from Haymarket Books.

Also wrote One Country: A Bold-Proposal to End the Israeli-Palestinian Impasse. Opinions are mine alone.