An Important Statement on Censorship at Clark

April 16, 2009

In News

By Clive McFarlane

Norman Finkelstein is an author and a scholar on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Born to parents who survived the Nazi Holocaust, he believes many self-identified survivors are fakes and that the Holocaust is being exploited for political and economic gains.

It is understandable why Clark University Students for Palestinian Rights would invite Mr. Finkelstein to give a speech April 23 at Clark titled “The Gaza Massacre,” and why members of Clark’s Jewish organization, Hillel, would object to Mr. Finkelstein’s presence at the university, particularly during the same week a conference on the Holocaust is being held on campus.

The surprise here was Clark University President John Bassett’s objection to Mr. Finkelstein. In what sure seems like an infringement on free speech and academic freedom, Mr. Bassett canceled Mr. Finkelstein’s visit.

The decision shocked supporters of Clark’s long history of hosting controversial speakers.

In fact, although the university was unable to confirm it as of last night, Mr. Finkelstein is said to have spoken at Clark on two previous occasions, once in 1988 and again in 1999.

Yet, citing the Holocaust conference being the week of April 23, Mr. Bassett said Mr. Finkelstein’s invitation was “unwise and inappropriate,” and that for some conference speakers his presence would seem “an insult and an affront.”

“It is not an issue of free speech,” he said, noting the possibility of Mr. Finkelstein speaking at some other time.

“It is really about campus courtesy.”

With all due respect, I disagree with Mr. Bassett.

He is within his rights to characterize Mr. Finkelstein as an “extremist” and “beyond controversial,” as he reportedly told members of Students for Palestinian Rights. And maybe the campus community could benefit from his call for a period of reflection on “the issues raised by the controversy; that is, what if any boundaries govern invitations to speakers on campus and what, if any, scheduling concerns are legitimate.”

But, as he himself told me, college presidents should not be getting into the business of censorship.

“I don’t want to create a bureaucracy for approving speakers,” he said. “I am not going to get into the business of approving speakers.”

Yet, this seems to be exactly what his action has accomplished.

Sarah Wunsch, a lawyer with ACLU Foundation of Massachusetts, noted in an e-mail to Mr. Bassett that, “The existence of an opportunity to speak at another time or in another location does not remedy the wrong of censorship.”

“His control of the university does not extend that far,” she told me.

“He has a bully pulpit, but I don’t think he has the power to shut down speech.”

Tom MacMillan, president of Students for Palestinian Rights, said Mr. Bassett’s decision seems to suggest that the sensibilities of one campus group were more important than those of another.

“What about the students who wanted to come and hear him talk,” he said. “He said he is looking at the best interest of the community, but there should be greater concern for the breath of the campus diversity.”

It appears Mr. Bassett is re-thinking his decision, thanks in part to some pushback, not just from students, but from faculty and alumni. A faculty assembly, in fact, will address the issue today.

Initially, Mr. Bassett had implied that his administration would consider Mr. Finkelstein’s invitation only after his call for a period of reflection and no sooner than next fall. He now says Mr. Finkelstein is free to speak before the end of the semester.

“Clark University remains completely committed to open and free discussion on all difficult issues and to hearing a wide range of speakers on all controversial topics,” he said.

I believe him, but rescinding his cancellation of Mr. Finkelstein’ April 23 speech is the way to show that commitment.