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Glenn Greenwald: The Greatest Threat to Campus Free Speech

There is no shortage of American pundits who love to denounce “PC” speech codes that restrict and punish the expression of certain ideas on college campuses. What these self-styled campus-free-speech crusaders typically — and quite tellingly — fail to mention is that the most potent such campaigns are often devoted to outlawing or otherwise punishing criticisms of Israel. The firing by the University of Illinois of Professor Steven Salatia for his “uncivil” denunciations of the Israeli war on Gaza — a termination that was privately condoned by Illinois Democratic Senator Dick Durbin — is merely illustrative of this long–growing trend.

One of the most dangerous threats to campus free speech has been emerging at the highest levels of the University of California system, the sprawling collection of 10 campuses that includes UCLA and UC Berkeley. The university’s governing Board of Regents, with the support of University President Janet Napolitano and egged on by the state’s legislature, has been attempting to adopt new speech codes that — in the name of combating “anti-Semitism” — would formally ban various forms of Israel criticism and anti-Israel activism.

Under the most stringent such regulations, students found to be in violation of these codes would face suspension or expulsion. In July, it appeared that the Regents were poised to enact the most extreme version, but decided instead to push the decision off until September, when they instead would adopt non-binding guidelines to define “hate speech” and “intolerance.”

One of the Regents most vocally advocating for the most stringent version of the speech code is Richard Blum, the multi-millionaire defense contractor who is married to Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California. At a Regents meeting last week, reported the Los Angeles Times, Blum expressly threatened that Feinstein would publicly denounce the university if it failed to adopt far more stringent standards than the ones it appeared to be considering, and specifically demanded they be binding and contain punishments for students found to be in violation.

The San Francisco Chronicle put it this way: “Regent Dick Blum said his wife, U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., ‘is prepared to be critical of this university’ unless UC not only tackles anti-Jewish bigotry but also makes clear that perpetrators will be punished.” The lawyer Ken White wrote that “Blum threatened that his wife … would interfere and make trouble if the Regents didn’t commit to punish people for prohibited speech.” As campus First Amendment lawyer Ari Cohn put it the following day, “Feinstein and her husband think college students should be expelled for protected free speech.”

Blum’s verbatim comments at the Regents meeting are even creepier than that reporting suggests:

I should add that over the weekend my wife, your senior Senator, and I talked about this issue at length. She wants to stay out of the conversation publicly but if we do not do the right thing she will engage publicly and is prepared to be critical of this university if we don’t have the kind of not only statement but penalties for those who commit what you can call them crimes, call them whatever you want. Students that do the things that have been cited here today probably ought to have a dismissal or a suspension from school. I don’t know how many of you feel strongly that way but my wife does and so do I.

Sarah McLaughlin of the campus free-speech group FIRE wrote: “Yes, a UC Regent flatly threatened the university with political consequences if it failed to craft a ‘tolerance’ policy that would punish — and even expel — its violators.”

In response to inquiries from The Intercept, Feinstein refused to say whether her husband was authorized to make such threats on her behalf, but she refused to distance herself from them. “This is a matter before the University of California and Senator Feinstein has no comment at this time,” her Press Secretary said.

The specific UC controversy is two-fold: whether, in combating “anti-semitism,” the university should adopt the State Department’s controversial 2010 definition of that term, and separately, whether students who express ideas that fall within that definition should be formally punished up to and including permanent expulsion. What makes the State Department definition so controversial — particularly for an academic setting — is that alongside uncontroversial and obvious examples of classic bigotry (e.g., expressing hateful or derogatory sentiments toward Jews generally), that definition includes a discussion of what it calls “Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel.”

How does speech about Israel become “anti-Semitic”? According to the State Department, “anti-Semitism” includes those who (1) “Demonize Israel” by “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis” or “blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions”; (2) espouse a “Double standard for Israel” by “requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” or “multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations”; or (3) “Delegitimize Israel” by “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist.” The State Department generously adds this caveat at the end: “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

The ironies of this definition are overwhelming. First, it warns against advocating a “double standard for Israel” — at exactly the same time that it promulgates a standard that applies only to Israel. Would the State Department ever formally condemn what it regards as excessive or one-sided criticism of any other government, such as Russia or Iran? Why isn’t the State Department also accusing people of bigotry who create “double standards” for Iran by obsessing over the anti-gay behavior of Iran while ignoring the same or worse abuses in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uganda? The State Department is purporting to regulate the discourse surrounding just one country — Israel — while at the same time condemning “double standards.” [continue reading]

Copyright 2015 Glenn Greenwald. First published in The Intercept.

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Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif. and her husband, Richard Blum.

One comment on “Glenn Greenwald: The Greatest Threat to Campus Free Speech

  1. Pingback: The Greatest Threat to Campus Free Speech | Exposing Modern Mugwumps

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