We must preserve free speech

by A. Altieri D’Angelo

The issue of free speech in the U.S. has been widely discussed in the last week. The cause was a congressional hearing regarding how students express their support for Palestinians caught in the Gaza War. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce (the Committee) held hearings whereby the Presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT were asked to explain their school’s policies on free speech and protests, as such are focused on Jews and Israel’s policies regarding Palestinians.

The Committee asked the Presidents if the protesters’ language violated the institutions’ code of conduct. Unfortunately, for the Republicans, the President’s responses did not lead to an official condemnation of the student protests or their slogans, such as “Intifada, which means “uprising” or “rebellion” in Arabic, or “From the river to the sea” a phrase widely interpreted as supporting the genocide of Israel and Jews everywhere. The Presidents stated that their universities’ codes of conduct adopted the principles of the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment, guaranteeing free speech. They noted the protesters had not violated the constitutional free speech standard and did not indicate that such chants broke the schools’ rules; the implication was that such hateful language would be allowed on campus. 

The Presidents failed to project any sense of empathy for Israel or Jewish students who had begun to feel insecure as protesters were effectively calling for genocide against Jews. They also did not emphasize that such statements were personally repugnant, and that schools’ rules prevented banning such language. The Presidents failed to connect with the people; they spoke as lawyers, not educators. It was a public relations disaster for the Presidents and the universities. The President of the University of Pennsylvania had to resign because of her comments at the hearing.

Although the U.S. Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled that the First Amendment allows for a broad range of speech that can threaten violence, it also stated that speech directed to and likely to produce imminent lawless action would lose First Amendment protection. The First Amendment also makes an exception for statements that communicate to another person or group a severe expression of intent to cause them physical harm. Under this standard, the speech of students who proclaim, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” would be protected even though this language is interpreted as a call to action to eliminate the Jewish people in Israel and beyond.

If the same protesters identified specific Jewish students and moved to harm such students, the speech would be deemed unlawful and punishable as incitement. The same applies to other forms of behavior. Harassment, if targeted, pervasive, and extreme enough to bar the students from access to education or other benefits, would also not be protected under the First Amendment. Harassment must go beyond the expression of words, symbols, and thoughts. It is a matter of degree. A daily protest calling for Jewish genocide occurring outside the Jewish student dormitory could lose its free speech status. The recent pro-Palestinian protests were not targeting students and, therefore, protected free speech.

The Committee hearings have led people to demand that such speech be censored. The Republicans in the House of Representatives have passed, with almost no Democratic Party support, a resolution equating anti-Zionism to antisemitism. In other words, you are antisemitic if you are against Israel’s policies (which some call Zionism). Republicans are seeking a political advantage by attempting to eliminate criticism of Israel by restricting free speech, as defined in the U.S. Constitution. While focused on people who criticize Israel, the resolution has broader implications.

If we start censoring speech, then where do we draw the line? This policy could erode our fundamental right to exercise free speech. It is a slippery slope to authoritarianism.

Preserving free speech is complicated and extremely important. Censorship, in any form, has one impact-it prevents people from debating issues that are important to them. It does not allow people to criticize the policies of governments and institutions such as universities. Of course, unrestricted free speech that is not targeted and does not lead to unlawful actions can include offensive language, as in the case of people proclaiming that Jews should be eliminated. We are, however, better served by more debate, not less debate.

People must be allowed to speak freely so long as they do not cross the line into unprotected speech. It would be helpful if protesters used less inflammatory words to emphasize their position, which is unlikely in an age of 24-hour news cycles. But this is the price we pay for a free and open society.

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