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Why Harvard Is Right to Back Its President

Why Harvard Is Right to Back Its President
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We should not demand that college administrators punish speech — even speech that some find ugly and offensive.

Editor's note: Jill Filipovic is a journalist based in New York and author of the book “OK Boomer, Let’s Talk: How My Generation Got Left Behind.” Follow her on Twitter. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely her own. View more opinion on CNN.

(CNN) — Last week, the presidents of several preeminent American universities testified before Congress about the waves of antisemitism hitting their campuses in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war, and what they are doing (or not doing) to prevent and punish it.

It was an abject disaster for the presidents, who represented the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania. They walked into predictable traps, making themselves look both wholly unprepared and insufficiently concerned with antisemitism.

Saddled with the baggage of previous encroachments on free speech under the guise of student emotional safety, and wading into hotly contested rhetorical waters about Israel and Gaza, the three presidents struggled to articulate a convincing position in support of free expression. Instead, they came back to a few themes, including that context matters when it comes to determining permissible speech on campus.

This has been met with much backlash. After enormous pressure from donors, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill has resigned, and there are calls for other university presidents to do the same. And certainly, all three women failed at anticipating the predictable outcome of these hearings.

But still: On the merits, they are correct. Context does matter. And permitted speech should be as broad as possible.

GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York was arguably the most effective questioner at the disastrous hearings — or, really, the most effective trap-setter. An exchange she had with Magill quickly went viral. In it, Stefanik asked Magill, “does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Penn’s rules or code of conduct? Yes or no?” She was referring to the now-common pro-Palestine chants “from the river to the sea” and the use of the word “intifada,” which Stefanik suggested should be punished under university codes of conduct.

Magill answered: “If the speech turns into conduct, it can be harassment. Yes.” Stefanik pushed back: “I am asking, specifically calling for the genocide of Jews, does that constitute bullying or harassment?” After another brief exchange, Magill said, “It is a context-dependent decision.”

When Stefanik turned her questioning to Harvard president Claudine Gay, asking, “Does calling for the genocide of Jews violate Harvard’s rules of bullying and harassment? Yes or no?” Gay responded, “It can be depending on the context.”

At the heart of this issue is whether universities should punish speech that many find abhorrent, but that does not cross the line into direct threats or incitement to violence.

Instead, there have been pro-Palestinian movements that have used widespread and popular slogans with contested meanings. For example, “from the river to the sea” is broadly understood as promoting freedom for Palestinians from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Some who use it say they mean a single state in what is now Israel where Jews and Arabs live peacefully side by side; others say they mean freedom of movement and full rights for Palestinians; others, including the terrorist group Hamas, use it to mean an Islamist state in place of Israel, ostensibly with Jews pushed out or killed.

The possible outcome of a slogan with various interpretations is not, though, the same thing as calling for a genocide.

In any case, the question shouldn’t be about feelings — Stefanik’s feelings, or even the feelings of students on campus. It should be about where, when and why administrators limit campus speech. And the answer is: They should limit it as seldom as possible, and allow speech to be as broad as possible. That includes speech that students find uncomfortable, offensive, or upsetting. It does not include speech that threatens or harasses or incites.

Obviously, these can be difficult lines to draw. But they should be drawn as narrowly as they can be. It does not seem reasonable to say that any student calling for Palestinian freedom from the river to the sea is harassing or inciting violence against Jews.

Students who care about the lives and futures of Jews have good reason to feel badly shaken by the rise of antisemitism around the US and in the rest of the world. Everyone should demand that our institutions, including those of higher learning, step in to prevent and punish antisemitic harassment, vandalism and violence. All of our communities should disavow antisemitism: Reject it, challenge it, ostracize and loudly condemn those who engage in it.

But we should not demand that college administrators punish speech — even speech that some find ugly and offensive.

Ironically — or, more accurately, hypocritically — many conservatives were making this same argument when the ugly speech being penalized or shut down (or often not penalized or shut down) was used to attack racial minorities, and when progressive students were asking their schools to do more to punish speech they found offensive.

The standard conservative line was that liberal professors and “woke” politics on the part of sensitive snowflake college kids were infringing on free expression, even as conservatives were at the same time banning books and pushing “Don’t Say Gay” legislation.

They had a sliver of a point, though: According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, an organization that pushes for expansive free speech norms, many college students have been punished or threatened with discipline for their expression.

The New York Times has reported on an instance in which the University of Tennessee punished a student for “vulgar” expression before she filed a federal lawsuit against the university. Many progressives have urged universities to do more about hate speech, and administrators have too often shrugged when mobs, hecklers and protesters shut down scheduled speakers.

Now, it’s clear that key conservatives see an opening, as university administrators decline to universally punish or curtail pro-Palestinian speech.

It’s all incredibly cynical, aimed less at protecting Jewish students and more at undermining important institutions, particularly those deemed “liberal.” The right-wing war on education is long-standing, and the Trump-era assault on American institutions well-established.

This latest round of “gotcha” leveled at university presidents isn’t about protecting Jewish students. It’s about eroding trust in institutions of higher learning, and scoring political points. It’s also coming at a time when pro-Palestinian speech is being widely curtailed, punished and threatened.

After Magill resigned, Stefanik’s response made clear she thinks this is a dark game: “One down. Two to go,” she said.

One of those she wants to go is Harvard President Claudine Gay, who said, “We embrace a commitment to free expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.”

In the midst of the backlash against Gay, Harvard’s board backed its president. And that is exactly what universities should do: Embrace a commitment to free expression and impose limitations only where that expression is dangerous — not simply objectionable, offensive or even hateful. It’s a standard they should have stood up for sooner. But it’s not too late for all of us to endorse it now.

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Jill Filipovic