Temple warned that firing Marc Lamont Hill would violate First Amendment

Students and activists take part in a rally in support of Marc Lamont Hill, at Temple University in Philadelphia, 6 December. (Joe Piette)

Civil rights groups are warning that moves to discipline or fire Marc Lamont Hill from his teaching position at Philadelphia’s Temple University would violate the First Amendment of the US Constitution that guarantees free speech.

Hill gave a 28 November speech at the United Nations to mark the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People.

Since then he has been the target of a campaign of lies by pro-Israel groups falsely characterizing the speech as anti-Semitic and calling for genocide against Jews.

In fact, Hill presented a vision rooted in universal human rights of Palestinians gaining freedom, just as other peoples have. He made particular reference to the history of Black struggle against American state racism, Jim Crow and apartheid.

Hill also called for support of boycotts – a time-honored nonviolent tactic to hold Israel accountable – and said that Palestine should be free “from the river to the sea.”

While pro-Israel groups attempted to spin those words as a demand for the “destruction of Israel,” they merely recognize that historic Palestine – what is today Israel, the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip – is not free between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea due to Israel’s imposition of apartheid on the entire Palestinian people.

Israel lobby pressure

Hill was quickly fired as a political contributor for CNN. Temple University distanced itself from Hill’s statements, but defended his “constitutionally protected right to express his opinion as a private citizen.”

The Zionist Organization of America, a far-right racist organization, declared itself “horrified and dismayed” by the university’s response and urged Temple to “fire Hill immediately or at least suspend him and remove him from the prestigious Steve Charles Chair that he holds.”

On 30 November, Temple University president Richard Englert put out another statement reaffirming that “Hill’s right to express his opinion is protected by the Constitution to the same extent as any other private citizen.”

But Englert also condemned “in the strongest possible terms all anti-Semitic, racist or incendiary language, hate speech [and] calls to violence” as if these descriptors could reasonably be applied to Hill’s speech – in effect an extension of the smears against the professor.

And on the same day, Temple University board of trustees chair Patrick O’Connor told media that “no one at Temple is happy with his [Hill’s] comments.”

“Free speech is one thing. Hate speech is entirely different,” O’Connor said.

“I’m not happy. The board’s not happy. The administration’s not happy. People wanted to fire him right away,” O’Connor stated. “We’re going to look at what remedies we have.”

“It’s not complicated”

Citing court precedents, FIRE, a free speech group, warned the Temple president that there is no “hate speech” exception in the First Amendment, and even if Hill’s statements could be characterized that way, they are still constitutionally protected.

“Temple University must immediately announce an end to any investigation into or potential punishment of Hill for his protected speech and reaffirm that it will not abandon its moral and legal obligations under the First Amendment,” FIRE stated.

“Since Temple is a public university, the Constitution applies,” Witold Walczak, Pennsylvania legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union, told The Philadelphia Inquirer. “Under the First Amendment, Temple cannot punish an employee for making off-the-job statements that it might disagree with. It’s not complicated.”

Civil rights group Palestine Legal has said the “false accusations and censorship against Hill represent yet another example of the ‘Palestine Exception’ to free speech” and that his firing by Temple University would violate the First Amendment.

Appeasement is futile

Fighting for his livelihood, Hill on 1 December authored an op-ed for The Philadelphia Inquirer apologizing for the phrase “from the river to the sea.”

“I take seriously the voices of so many Jewish brothers and sisters, who have interpreted my remarks as a call to or endorsement of violence,” Hill wrote. “Rather than hearing a political solution, many heard a dog-whistle that conjured a long and deep history of violence against Jewish people.”

“For that, I am deeply sorry,” he added.

While Hill’s desire to calm the storm is understandable, it is unlikely to appease those calling for his head. Hill wrote as if his critics had been in good faith, and had genuinely misunderstood his words.

But the attacks from the Zionist Organization of America, and top Israel lobby operatives like Avi Mayer and financier of anti-Palestinian causes Adam Milstein were not in good faith.

They are part of a systematic campaign of smearing and lying about those who criticize Israel or support Palestinian rights, in order to punish them and deter others.

Such forces cannot be appeased with apologies, but must be faced down by a united front committed to free speech, anti-racism and universal rights.

Students protest

That kind of solidarity has been on display, as students at Temple University marched in support of Hill and fellow faculty expressed no confidence in university board chair O’Connor.

The Temple faculty union has denounced O’Connor’s claims that the university was looking for “remedies” against Hill for protected free speech.

The American Association of University Professors also backed Hill, affirming that faculty should “have the freedom to address the larger community with regard to any matter of social, political, economic or other interest, without institutional discipline or restraint.”

In addition, some three dozen Temple faculty signed a letter stating that the arguments in Hill’s UN speech “were passionate, considered and thoughtful, and respected the humanity of Palestinians and Israelis.”

Yet even if people disagreed, his views were protected by Temple’s contract.

“Academic freedom is a bedrock principle of academia,” the educators state. “O’Connor has betrayed that principle and we have no confidence in his leadership of the board.”

Statements in support of Hill have also come from Palestinian prisoners rights group Addameer, National Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

The Israel lobby campaign against Hill follows a playbook used against many educators, including Joseph Massad, Steven Salaita, John Cheney-Lippold and Rabab Abdulhadi.

But the campaign against Hill is also notable because he is an outspoken African American proponent of Black solidarity with Palestine.

Israeli officials and Israel lobby operatives have made clear recently that they view Black support for Palestinians as a particularly dangerous threat to Israel’s efforts to legitimize and whitewash its apartheid system.

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For the record, Chairman of Temple University's Board of Trustees Patrick J. O'Connor is a senior partner in the powerful Philadelphia law firm of Cozen O'Connor. While serving on the Board of Trustees, O'Connor represented comedian Bill Cosby, who was also a Temple Trustee at the time, in a civil suit brought in 2005 by Andrea Costand charging sexual assault. Criticisms were expressed over a possible conflict of interest on O'Connor's part, but no action was taken.

A bit of background information is often helpful in assessing the lofty principles attributed to our civic leaders and their institutions. In this instance, a trustee was prepared to employ his legal skills on behalf of a celebrity in possession of great wealth. I'm not aware of an equivalent effort on the part of Mr. O'Connor for the defense of impoverished, oppressed and decidedly uncelebrated Palestinians. Nevertheless, as Board Chairman he finds himself in a moral position to call for the removal of a Temple faculty member for the offense of doing exactly that- defending the rights and dignity of the Palestinian people.

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