Hate Speech and Academic Freedom
In 2014 a Rutgers University professor wrote that, “white privilege kills.” She meant it literally. A 22-year old man (who was mentally ill) had just killed six college students in Santa Barbara, California -- and that prompted the professor to write an article that contained this passage: “Another young white guy has decided that his disillusionment with his life should become somebody else’s problem. … How many times must troubled young white men engage in these terroristic acts that make public space unsafe for everyone before we admit that white male privilege kills?”
Not that it mattered to the Rutgers professor, but the “white guy” was half Asian.
One year later another Rutgers professor tweeted: “Yes ISIS is brutal, but US is more so … 1.3 million killed in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.”
She teaches journalism at Rutgers.
Now, Rutgers University, my alma mater, which opened its doors in 1766, is in the news again. This time the issue involves professors who -- let’s be kind and say -- are not particularly fond of Jews.
For openers, there’s the professor who took to social media to say Judaism is “the most racist religion in the world” … and that be believes Israeli Jews want to “exterminate” Palestinians … but haven’t succeeded because too many Jews in Israel – wait for it! – are gay.
And then there’s his Facebook page, which is filled with images of hook-nosed Jews.
For the record, the professor says he’s not anti-Semitic, that he was once married to a Jewish woman – a nice variation on the old line about how some of my best friends are Jews.
Another Rutgers professor claims that Israelis maim (instead of kill) Palestinians in battle “in order to control them.” And a third professor, who in a previous life served as a diplomat and apologist for Syrian President Bashar Assad, claimed that “international gangs led by some Israeli officials are now trafficking children’s organs” -- an accusation that Israel has denounced as “blood libel.”
They have a name for this kind of tripe, which sadly is not uncommon on many of our finest (liberal) college campuses: It’s called academic freedom – which apparently gives professors the right to say just about anything and get away with it.
Several years ago, after the comments by the Rutgers professors about how mass murder is the result of white privilege and how America is more brutal than ISIS, the school’s president, Robert Barchi, said that “While I will not defend the content of every opinion expressed by every member of our academic community … I will defend their right to speak freely. That freedom is fundamental to our University, our society, and our nation.”
Now, he’s saying the same thing about the anti-Semites and anti-Israelis (which in a lot of cases is a distinction without a difference). In a statement, the university said that while “Rutgers “strive[s] to foster an environment free from discrimination,” faculty and staff “are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens.”
Is that all Rutgers could muster – a routine defense of free speech and a claim to “investigate any violation of the university’s non-discrimination policy”?
For the record, I’m for free speech too. I don’t think a professor should automatically be fired for making stupid or even hateful comments. But what I don’t understand is where Rutgers (or any university for that matter) draws the line? What kind of speech would not be protected by academic freedom?
Let’s imagine that a white professor at Rutgers posts on social media racist images of African Americans, say, with big lips and bulging eyes. Or what if he wrote that Islam is “the most racist religion in the world”?
Would President Barchi condemn the content of his posts but defend his right to speak freely? Would he grant such a professor “academic freedom” to spout hate -- as long as he does it on his own time?
How would Rutgers expect black or Muslim students to be in the same classroom with such a professor? For that matter, how could Rutgers expect Jewish students to be in the same classroom with a professor who thinks Judaism is a racist religion and posts images of Jews with big, hooked noses?
Let’s see what the Rutgers investigation, into whether the professor’s posts adversely affect his ability to teach, produces. And while we’re at it, let’s see if threats by alumni to withhold donations to the school influences the decision on whether the professor stays or goes.
Censoring controversial speech is a dangerous game, especially on a college campus. And with liberals in charge of most universities, the few conservatives on campus might very well have targets on their backs if academic freedom didn’t exist. So let’s not call for anyone’s head, not at the moment.
But I’m still wondering: Where does the president of Rutgers University draw the line? If even bigots have free speech rights – especially at a public university -- and therefore should be allowed to keep their jobs, what then? Is public humiliation a way to deal with them? And there's one more question: How do people like those Rutgers professors get hired in the first place?