Universities are places where conversations take place, where ideas are debated and knowledge shared. But this needs to happen in an atmosphere of mutual respect, lest real political discourse becomes mere shouting into the wind — or worse.
That’s what goes on far too often when Israel is the topic. This week San Francisco State University issued a report regarding its handling of the appalling disruption of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s April 6 appearance on campus. As we reported that day, dozens of angry anti-Israel protesters carrying loudspeakers filled the room, making it impossible for Barkat to speak. Hateful words were shouted.
The university, which should have expected trouble, did nothing to intervene.
On one hand, SFSU President Les Wong is to be commended for taking the incident seriously and striving to investigate it. He is also to be commended for concluding that the university “failed our students” that day with an “inadequate response” and that “we have significant work to do to improve the campus climate for all of our students.”
But Wong and his report fall short on many levels, especially in failing to lay blame where it belongs: at the feet of the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS), the pro-Palestinian student group whose members, like similar campus groups elsewhere, make it their mission to disrupt and shout down pro-Israel and Israeli voices on campus.
Do they have a right under the First Amendment to express their views? Yes. But that right ends when it infringes on or, more accurately, suppresses the free speech rights of those with opposing views. This should be self-evident, and yet at SFSU and scores of campuses across the country, a self-conscious “hands-off” policy seems to apply when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian debate.
There is no debate. One side gets to speak, the other has to shut up and disappear.
Wong said his administration hopes to develop a plan that will “promote civil discourse, foster intercultural learning and cross-cultural understanding within a social justice framework.” Pretty words that mean nothing if one side gets to trample unimpeded the free speech rights of the other.
San Francisco Hillel director Ollie Benn, who criticized the university’s tepid report in an op-ed this week, said, “No matter the subject, you do not get to shout down and eliminate the free speech rights of others because you dislike or disagree with their viewpoints.”
We couldn’t agree more. There will be no civil discourse on campus until administrators start mandating real consequences against those who consistently show no interest in civility.