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OpinionColumnistsCathy Young

Young: Not all hate speech is equal

Seminar in lecture hall.

Seminar in lecture hall. Credit: iStock

In no other profession except the media is freedom of speech and ideas as important as in the academy. But what are the limits to professors' speech? When is a university justified in sanctioning a faculty member for inflammatory public comments that may cross the line into bigotry?

These issues are being raised in the case of Steven Salaita, a professor of American Indian studies who is fighting against the decision of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign to revoke the offer of a tenured position that he had accepted. The decision was apparently based on the professor's anti-Israel -- some say anti-Jewish -- postings on Twitter. But many say Salaita, a Palestinian-American, is being punished for legitimate, strongly worded opinions. And both his supporters and his critics could be accused of double standards.

Some of Salaita's disputed tweets, sent during Israel's military operation in Gaza in the summer, fall within the bounds of passionate political rhetoric. Such as: "If you're defending #Israel right now, then 'hopelessly brainwashed' is your best prognosis."

University chancellor Phyllis Wise has said that "disrespectful words . . . that demean and abuse" other viewpoints or their holders are unacceptable. But by that logic, notes Robert Shibley of the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, one could not be "disrespectful" of fascism, communism or racism.

But at times, Salaita seems close to justifying anti-Semitism. Notably: "Zionists: transforming 'anti-Semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948." His defenders say this must be seen in the context of the previous tweet, which laments that deploring "colonization, land theft, and child murder" is equated with being anti-Semitic. Perhaps. But there's also this, about the kidnapping of three Israeli teens who were later found murdered: "You may be too refined to say it, but I'm not: I wish all the [expletive] West Bank settlers would go missing." Salaita also retweeted the comment that an article by pro-Israel journalist Jeffrey Goldberg "should have ended at the pointy end of a shiv."

Taken together, these and other Salaita comments create the impression of group hatred -- ostensibly toward "Zionists," but projected at Jews. And while Salaita's champions say that Twitter is conducive to provocative discourse, journalist Liel Liebowitz, writing in the Jewish online magazine The Tablet, notes that his books also contain troubling passages -- such as the claim that American Jews often fake anti-Semitic incidents and the distortion of news stories to support this claim.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education which focuses on civil liberties in academia, has spoken in Salaita's support and is consistent in defending even highly objectionable speech in academia. But it is likely that many of his supporters would have been far less sympathetic if his inflammatory remarks had targeted a different group. Would they defend a far-right professor who had written that he wished more black teenagers would get killed by police, or that feminists were transforming misogyny into something honorable?

Free speech is vitally important, and exceptions for hate speech or expression that make people "uncomfortable" creates a strong risk of censoring undesirable ideas. But universities can also draw the line at genuine, venomous bigotry.

Whether Salaita has crossed that line is open to debate. The problem is that in the political climate of today's academy, endorsing his speech is tantamount to saying that not all hate speech is created equal: unacceptable when directed at blacks, gays or women; permissible when it targets "Zionist" Jews.

Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and the website RealClearPolitics.