Confronting hate speech

This week has been a challenging one for the Brandeis community as we received reports of an abhorrent demonstration on the campus of Al-Quds University, one of Brandeis University’s many international partners.

Our community was shocked and dismayed to hear reports of demonstrators on the Al-Quds University campus, dressed in black military gear and armed with fake automatic weapons, who marched while waving flags and raising the traditional Nazi salute.

In many ways I feel our response was correct. We had an unsubstantiated report from a single blogger come in last Friday, just before Shabbat in Israel, and we waited over the weekend until we had a chance to get more information. On Monday we initiated a variety of actions, reviewing our partnership, issuing a statement condemning the march, and at the same time awaiting further updates from Al-Quds regarding how they would investigate this matter.

I reacted to these events both as Brandeis’s President and as a scholar and attorney – much of my professional and academic career has focused on bias-motivated violence and expressions of bigotry, popularly known as hate crimes and hate speech. Beyond the strict legal issues, there are the moral and social issues: what is the responsibility of an ethical community in the face of hate speech, that which in America is constitutionally protected but that is deeply offensive or that is conducive to violence? This question falls at the intersection of two of our most cherished values – values that appear to be in conflict: a robust respect for free expression and a culture that values civility, decency, and dignity. Here are some thoughts about this conflict of values in light of this week’s events.

First and foremost, universities should be safe spaces for a broad range of dialogue, discussion and debate. But there are limits, and hate speech has no place on our campus. As private university campus we are not, strictly speaking, bound by the First Amendment. We can, and indeed we must, develop our own rules of freedom of expression. If groups wish to advocate bigotry in public spaces adjacent to our campus, and are otherwise within the confines of local law, I believe strongly that the Constitution protects their right to do so – that their speech disgusts me is quite beside the point. That does not, however, obligate us to permit such heinous activities in our institutional spaces. A good example of this distinction occurred on our campus several years ago when the Westboro Baptist Church demonstrated outside our campus – and they were entitled to do so. But they were not permitted to demonstrate on campus.

I think it is critical to understand that we can both support protected free speech in public spaces, and still speak out against racist, anti-Semitic, and xenophobic activities. The art critic Robert Hughes made a similar point in a different context in his essay “Art, Morals, and Politics,” first published in the New York Review of Books. Hughes notes in broad strokes that – in America – there is a tendency to constitutionalize arguments about important issues. Hughes observes that focusing solely on the constitutional question of whether art is protected as free expression and thus should not be censored (Hughes thought it was in fact protected), prevents us from considering the more important aesthetic question of the merits of the art itself. Like Hughes, we may defend the right to free speech, and still be clear that some art is flawed, and that some words and actions, especially those espousing violence, are abhorrent. And we should be willing to say so.

I am convinced that as a community, we agree that certain kinds of demonstrations are unacceptable. The demonstration at Al-Quds University last week clearly expressed hatred, and was steeped in vitriolic anti-Semitism. Such a demonstration certainly has no place on the Brandeis campus, and its occurrence on the campus of one of our international partners disturbed me deeply; I was outraged.

While we cannot supervise the speech and activities on the campuses of all our many international partners, where such events fly in the face of our communal values we should, and will, step forward and speak out. I have spoken with the President of Al-Quds and expressed my concerns. I have also asked a delegation of faculty visiting Israel next week to undertake further discussion about specific issues that have been brought to our attention. All of this input will allow us to review our relationship, as we should with any partner when there are serious concerns about their alignment with our institutional values.

In this complex and significant issue of defining the boundaries of free expression, we have much to learn from our university’s namesake, Louis D Brandeis. He was one of the great architects of the jurisprudence that still underpins our great First Amendment freedoms of speech and expression. Yet he also knew that we were neither obliged nor permitted to remain silent in response to evil: “Neutrality is at times a greater sin than belligerence.” I hope that our further consideration of these issues can be guided by his wisdom.

1 Response to “Confronting hate speech”

  • Dear Prof,

    I have always been delighted to read developing stories and events from my Alma Mater since May 2013 that left as a graduate scholar from the Heller School. But reading the details you provided on the demonstrations that reportedly took taken place at Al-Quds University left me deeply perturbed. As a matter of fact, I personally appreciate the wisdom and restraint you have demonstrated in handling the issue – at both the University site and your personal blog. My family and I wish you the best outcome from this. Regards.

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