Anti-Israel protests shouldn’t have their own rule book
On a university campus, a student group invites a speaker. Several other groups oppose that speaker’s views. During the first minutes of his speech, they pull out megaphones, repeatedly yell profanities at him and cause such disruption that he cannot be heard and has to leave.
The protesters publicly defend their actions as justified because they think the speaker and his views are offensive to them. Situations like this repeat themselves over the years.
Without knowing the groups or the conflict involved, this makes no sense. We don’t allow censorship or cancellation of public speakers when someone doesn’t like their views. It’s contrary to the mission of a university, where students should be exposed to difficult ideas, and it’s contrary to our free speech values in society.
And failing to confront this strategy known as “anti-normalization” is troubling. When a group specifically states its intent is to not engage with anyone whose views oppose their own, to not collaborate or find common ground, and to actively interfere with other groups’ right to speak and be heard in the public square, it undermines the way a university, and society in general, works.
All of the above is completely indefensible because it is illegal viewpoint discrimination. Letting one group repeatedly trample on another’s free speech rights without any real redress is the opposite of allowing a robust exchange of ideas. It becomes a judgment on the substance of the issues, because it favors elimination of one side of the debate. It ceases to be a “content neutral” approach. And we know that’s wrong.
When it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, though, normal rules do not apply.
When the mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, tried to speak at San Francisco State University in April, the above scenario happened. Protesters repeatedly chanted, “Get the fuck off our campus” until Mayor Barkat could no longer be heard. Students in the audience cried.
The university has recently acknowledged that its representatives stood by and did nothing. But instances like this, and worse, have happened repeatedly at S.F. State over the years, and are being seen across the country.
The suspension of reality that occurs when the Israel-Palestine conflict comes to campus can be seen in the independent investigator’s report recently released by S.F. State. The investigator, a trained attorney, repeatedly pointed out that one of the 30 or so protesters was Jewish. No other students’ religion was identified.
The only possible reason to mention this was to morally justify the shout-down and make it somehow “OK.” If a Jewish student was among the protesters, the shout-down apparently can’t be morally adjudged to be “wrong.”
But this completely misses the point: The religion or national origin of anyone present is irrelevant, as is the subject of the debate. No matter the subject, you do not get to shout down and eliminate the free-speech rights of others because you dislike them or disagree with their viewpoints.
The investigation quoted, without any criticism or comment, a protester’s absurd approach to students with different political views than her: “I have no problems with the students on campus. They are peers to me. I do not talk to them, I do not make eye contact.” The investigation noted that, according to yet another student, the shouting down of the mayor was “pretty normal” for S.F. State.
If this is the type of civil discourse a university wishes to endorse, there is little hope for its academic mission.
The University of Chicago, Columbia University and the regents of the University of California, among others, have spoken out strongly against anti-normalization and the cancellation of speakers when others do not like what they represent.
To date, S.F. State has refused to take clear action against anti-normalization or the advocates of this strategy. In doing so, it is allowing democratic values to be eroded, and engaging in viewpoint discrimination, by allowing one party to prevent another from public speaking or listening.
At some point, a group’s ability to evade authority and decide who gets to speak publicly — and who doesn’t — needs to be called out for what it might become: mob rule at S.F. State.
Ollie Benn has been the executive director at San Francisco Hillel since June 2014. He previously served on its board as governance chair, and formerly worked as an attorney.
Report ignores threats, disgraceful conduct
On the afternoon of April 6, students active in the General Union of Palestine Students at San Francisco State University disrupted a Hillel-sponsored speaking appearance by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat, preventing the event from continuing.
That disruption — not protest, but disruption — involved behavior that clearly violated the university’s student code of conduct and showed little respect for the rights of others to speak and to hear on campus.
Though Mary Anne Begley, interim dean of students, and Reginald Parsons, interim police chief (not in uniform), reportedly attended the event, anticipating problems, they failed to intervene effectively in real time and to prevent or blunt the disruption. Indeed, the interim dean of students directed police to stand down and do nothing.
In a further disappointing development several weeks later, the university’s student conduct office found no grounds or reasons to prosecute or punish any among the responsible students or even issue a warning.
Amid expressions of heightened concern by Bay Area Jewish community leaders and organizations, SFSU President Leslie Wong on April 7 ordered a full, independent investigation into what happened along with a report of findings and conclusion. An independent Sacramento-based legal firm, Van Dermyden Maddux Law, carried out the investigation.
Now the 21-page report has been made public (www.tinyurl.com/sfsu-barkat-report), and Wong acknowledges that responsibility for “the inadequate responses prior to, during, and following the event falls squarely on the shoulders of San Francisco State University administrators” (www.tinyurl.com/sfsu-wong-letter).
The report shows that university officials were guilty of “multiple inactions.” Specifically, pre-event planning for protest did not occur, GUPS student chanting and the use of amplified sound disrupted the proceedings, and the officials in attendance did not stop it.
The interim police chief testified that student affairs officials failed to engage the students at the time, and he was the only one saying “stop” to the students. The interim dean explained later by saying, “We decided we did not want to escalate any further.”
Much of the university’s response this summer has been to anticipate these findings and therefore to look closely at and modify aspects of the university student code, improve staff training, and develop better protocols about planning and responding in real time to such actions. These are positive steps.
But while the report clarifies many administration shortcomings and failures, the investigation and report falls short concerning the student conduct. Some witness evidence appears to be ignored, the recommendations sidestep the issue of student responsibility and conduct, and the report asserts falsely that no threats were made toward Jewish students.
The conclusion is for no action against the student disruptors who, the report says, incredibly, on page 8, “do not feel that they disrupted the event” (italics added for emphasis).
In an additional laughable proposition, the report concludes that students were reasonably confused about the interim police chief, since he was in plain clothes, even though he identified himself three times to them, flashed his badge and strode to the podium.
The claim that there were no threats also flies in the face of contradictory information provided by the faculty adviser to Hillel, who witnessed the event. Professor Marc Dollinger observes that at a volume he would call “yelling,” and with fingers pointing, the demonstrators screamed late during the disruption at Jewish students to “get the fuck off this campus.”
The report actually quotes him as a witness, though not by name: “At one point, this stuck with me, it made me choke up — the demonstrators were chanting ‘we don’t want you on this campus’ and ‘get the fuck off this campus’” (page 13).
The university’s approach to fashioning a constructive response by revising the code and protocols and increasing training presumes that administrative failure is the whole problem.
The new initiatives go in the right direction. But the university’s response avoids an equally important matter: the commitment and willingness of GUPS and its members to violate clear rules about behavior on campus.
In a response to the report, GUPS issued a statement: “The report finds that our protest was disruptive, but for students of conscience, the real disruption was the mayor of occupied Jerusalem coming to campus. His explicit agenda is to remove Palestinians from the city and he was given a platform to whitewash and propagate his policies.”
Apparently, to GUPS, disruption is justified anytime someone it dislikes is invited and the belief is he or she is whitewashing reality. In this Orwellian approach, free speech is labeled disruption, and disruption is free speech.
Arrogating to itself the right to define what opinions can be spoken on campus, GUPS should be issued a warning and, if similar behavior repeats, the organization should have its charter suspended.
Students can protest, they can carry signs, they can ask tough questions, they can hand out leaflets. The university recognizes free expression. But apparently this is not enough. San Francisco State administrators should enforce the rules and put GUPS on notice.
Kenneth Waltzer is the executive director of the Academic Engagement Network. He is a former history professor and director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University.