The Nazis among Us

October 2, 2011

In News

Anti-Israel speech should be protected, not banned, on American campuses

An Israel-based legal group has sent a letter to 100 university and college presidents asking them to crack down on anti-Israel abuse. Fair enough, except that anti-Israel speech – anger directed at a government – is protected by the First Amendment.

In 2005, The Daily Tar Heel, the campus newspaper of The University of North Carolina, published a racist opinion column by student Jillian Bandes, who said she wanted “all Arabs to be stripped naked and cavity-searched if they get within 100 yards of an airport.” The university did not, indeed could not, take action against Ms. Bandes. She was subsequently fired for the column by the student editor, but only because she deliberately strung together quotes from an Arabic professor and student to affect their meaning.

American universities have high thresholds for the tolerance of nasty speech, as they should. One of the grandest functions of college and university presidents in the United States is not to curb unpopular speech, but rather to protect it.

At the University of Maine where I teach, campus preachers may (and do) shout bigoted remarks about homosexuals and where they’ll go in the afterlife. Those slurs and other vile speech about minority groups are protected on the campus of a public university.

The United States and Israel share a number of similar legal traditions, including the existence of powerful supreme courts that often rule against the wishes of legislators and even public opinion. But many of Israel’s and other nations’ limits to speech violate very basic understandings of liberty and dissent in the US.

Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University and a First Amendment scholar, wrote disapprovingly in 2010 that, “even those that are nearest to the United States in their commitment to a democratic form of government (such as Great BritainGermany, and France) have sometimes arrived at a different balance when it comes to the press and other societal interests.”

Anti-Semitic speech is not protected in the US in some limited instances, such as when it involves slurs directed at a specific individual, which may amount to harassment. Anti-Israel speech, though, is anger directed at an institution – a government. The laws of the United States are abundantly clear that such expression is protected to the full.

Justin D. Martin, Ph.D., is the CLAS-Honors Preceptor of Journalism at the University of Maine and a columnist for ColumbiaJournalism Review. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin