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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Free speech tests U.S. campuses

Protection of repugnant anti-Semitism gets emotional and complicated.

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Concerns about the suppression of speech on college campuses generally focus on left-wing activists seeking to muzzle “offensive” ideas — most recently, last week at Lewis and Clark College Law School in Portland, Oregon, where feminist dissenter Christina Hoff Sommers was repeatedly shouted down by a few angry students.

Yet some have charged that foes of political correctness ignore threats to free speech on campus from the right. Case in point: Also last week, a California professor filed a lawsuit claiming he was barred from speaking at Arizona State University because he supports a boycott of Israel.

The plaintiff, University of California, Berkeley, lecturer and American Muslims for Palestine chair Hatem Bazian, is suing both the university and the state attorney general in a challenge to the Arizona law that prohibits the state from contracting with companies and groups that boycott Israel. Such legislation, intended to counter the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement targeting Israel, is on the books in 24 states — including New York — and is pending in 12 more.

Because of the law, Arizona State University amended its standard speaker agreement to include a “No boycott of Israel” clause. Bazian, who had been invited by the school’s Muslim Students Association to discuss Palestine and the BDS campaign, refused to sign.

One can make a solid case for anti-BDS legislation when it comes to commercial activity. But when such laws result in denying a platform to constitutionally protected speech, they pose a very obvious First Amendment problem.

Last fall, some local lawmakers threatened to use the law to nix concerts by former Pink Floyd singer Roger Waters, a vocal BDS supporter, at the county-owned Nassau Coliseum. That was a bad move; but it’s far worse when anti-BDS measures suppress speech on university campuses, which should be seats of open discourse. For what it’s worth, Arizona State University says that the form Bazian was asked to sign was used in error and is no longer given to speakers.

Leftists have a point when they say that champions of anti-political-correctness free speech often disregard attempts to restrict criticism of Israel. Ironically, this is an area in which conservatives often make a claim similar to those of the campus left: that members of a minority group — in this case, Jewish students — feel attacked and aggrieved by political discourse related to their identity. Two years ago, Israel advocacy groups at the University of California pushed for official university censure of anti-Zionism as bigotry; the university’s board of regents rejected that proposal, issuing a statement that condemned only overtly anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionist rhetoric.

The issue is complicated. Anti-Israel polemics often do cross the line into anti-Semitism. Indeed, Bazian, the Arizona plaintiff, has come under fire for sharing plainly anti-Semitic memes on Twitter; a retweet showed a grinning Orthodox Jewish man boasting that he is “chosen” and can “kill, rape, smuggle organs & steal the land of Palestinians.” (Bazian apologized and explained that he had not examined the images very carefully.) The proposal to censure anti-Zionism at the University of California was spurred by bias incidents against Jewish students. And one can certainly argue that BDS itself is hostile to academic freedom since it seeks to ostracize Israeli academics.

Nonetheless, freedom of speech protects even advocacy of repugnant and illiberal causes. Sommers, who is Jewish and strongly pro-Israel, has tweeted in support of Bazian’s complaint, saying the mandatory “no boycott of Israel” pledge plainly violates the First Amendment. BDS, she wrote, “should be challenged with logic and evidence, not censorship.”

Amen to that.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.

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