Columnist Jim Oldham: Free speech and its discontents

  • Students enter Johnson Chapel on the Amherst College quad to hear former U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions speak on Wednesday, April 24, 2019. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

Friday, May 17, 2019

Two weeks ago there was an interesting juxtaposition of stories in the Bulletin, with reports on two separate events at local campuses, each with controversial speakers and topics. One had recently taken place at Amherst College; the other was, at the time, still upcoming at the University of Massachusetts. Each raised questions about freedom of speech and rules of academic discourse. Together they provided an opportunity to reflect on the way those questions are debated in the media, as well as who has access to opportunities to present their point view on college campuses and in the wider society.

One article covered a talk by former attorney general Jeff Sessions at Amherst College on April 24. According to that report, a portion of Sessions’ remarks addressed supposed “dangerous anti-speech” trends on college campuses, with Sessions suggesting that protests and laughter that greeted his talk reflected a lack of intellectual diversity “too close to indoctrination to suit me.”

Another report described a lawsuit targeting a panel of four advocates for Palestinian rights scheduled to speak at the University of Massachusetts. The suit, on behalf of three anonymous students, called for an injunction to stop the event “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech & the Battle for Palestinian Rights.” Given that a central purpose of the panel was to give voice to perspectives often excluded from mainstream discussion of Israel and Palestine, the suit provided an ironic confirmation of the organizers’ message.

Dozens of conservative organizations from around the country also weighed in to demand the university cancel the event or deny it space on campus. To their credit, university leaders held firm in their defense of “the free exchange of ideas,” and the judge hearing the suit rejected the request for an injunction, explaining, as quoted in the Boston Herald, “I can’t enjoin a forum just because someone may say something at that forum that fits someone’s definition of anti-Semitism or racism or homophobia or anything else…There’s nothing that comes even close to a threat of harm or incitement to violence or lawlessness.”

Yet these efforts still contributed to an ongoing strategy of pressure and intimidation designed to discourage the university, and other institutions more generally, from giving space to speakers and events critical of the Israeli government. A 2015 report produced by the Center for Constitutional Rights together with Palestine Legal, titled “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech,” documented hundreds of similar efforts—many successful—to silence advocates for Palestinian rights, all following “recognizable patterns in strategies and tactics.”

The key starting point of all these efforts is, as described in “The Palestine Exception,” is “inflammatory accusations of anti-Semitism and support for terrorism.” As people lined up at the Fine Arts Center to hear the Not Backing Down panel, full color flyers were passed out that attempted, with no evidence, to link the speakers, all progressive human rights advocates, to ISIS and to acts of right wing terrorists in Charlottesville and elsewhere. The speakers’ history of criticizing the Israeli government and its policies of oppression were irresponsibly conflated with acts of hatred against Jewish people based on race and religion.

As a group of forty professors of Jewish studies at North American universities wrote in a 2014 letter criticizing the AMCHA Initiative, one of the organizations that were advocating against the panel, “its definition of anti-Semitism is so undiscriminating as to be meaningless.” A similar point was made by attorney Rachel Weber, of Jewish Voice for Peace, who repeated on Democracy Now her argument in the recent court case, “that the plaintiffs’ use of a definition of anti-Semitism which includes any criticism of Israel and any advocacy for Palestinians is incorrect, inflammatory and offensive to Jews, Jewish communities, and also historically inaccurate.”

This record calls into question the conservative narrative that campuses are dominated by left-wing views that stifle debate. While Sessions faced laughter, perhaps heckling, some students walking out, and at least one professor with a sign outside, there was no concerted attempt to prevent him from speaking, no lawsuit, and no outside groups with outside money demanding Amherst College cancel his talk.

Also, the criticism targeting Sessions was based on specific facts, not innuendo. Economics professor Jessica Reyes, who protested his talk, pointed to the policies Sessions established at the Department of Justice “to prosecute anyone crossing the southwest border and to separate children from their parents,” which she reasonably argued, were contrary to the standards of behavior that Amherst College has established for its community. Whether one agrees or not, the argument is at least fact-based and logical.

These two examples make clear that, despite the progressive views of many students and faculty members, the voices of oppressed groups are those that continue to need to be defended and amplified. The powerful can and do take care of themselves.

Jim Oldham served as a Town Meeting member from Precinct 5 between 2002 and 2018. He has written a monthly column for the Bulletin since 2007.