All Campus Free Speech Is Acceptable - Except About Islam

As yet more evidence that American campuses have become, in Abigail Thernstrom's apt description, "islands of repression in a sea of freedom," St. Louis University has demonstrated that that free speech on campuses begins and ends according to how well that speech conforms to existing political orthodoxies. The University's College Republicans and Young America's Foundation had invited conservative author David Horowitz  to deliver a speech entitled, "An Evening with David Horowitz: Islamo-Fascism Awareness and Civil Rights," and university administrators, once again choosing to avoid a close examination of radical Islam, cancelled Horowitz's planned appearance.

What St. Louis University's administration has done here is essentially to exercise the "heckler's veto," shutting down speech with which it does not agree, or which is feels is too controversial for certain protected minorities on campus; but ominously, and in seeming contradiction to the school's own stated policy "to promote the free and open exchange of ideas and viewpoints, even if that exchange proves to be offensive, distasteful, disturbing or denigrating to some," this particular speech was suppressed in advance of the event, based on a belief that the speaker's words would possibly insult Muslim students and inflame their sensibilities.

Their decision seems to belie the University's own feckless contention, in its "Policy Statement on Demonstrations & Disruption," that it "encourages students, faculty and staff to be bold, independent, and creative thinkers," and that "fundamental to this process is the creation of an environment that respects the rights of all members of the University community to explore and to discuss questions which interest them, to express opinions and debate issues energetically and publicly, and to demonstrate their concern by orderly means."

There are troubling issues here, putting aside the basic question of fairness of denying certain students, with certain political beliefs, the opportunity to invite speakers to campus to share their views. Horowitz's speech was cancelled (and he has appeared, by his own account, on more than 400 campuses in the past), not because it might contain speech that was demonstrably false or even incendiary, but because some individuals might be ‘offended' or ‘intimidated' by speech that they were perfectly free never to hear. Students have a right to be offended by the speech -- even hate speech -- of their fellow students or invited speakers and speak back to that speech with speech of their own, but their fellow students and invited guests also have a Constitutionally-protected right to be offensive, contentious, even controversial, provided their speech and conduct is within the bounds of the law. 

"For me, it was ... the content," explained the university's dean of students, Scott Smith, in rationalizing the decision to rescind Horowitz's invitation to speak, "particularly, the blanketed use of the term Islamo-Fascism." The school was also concerned that the speech would be seen as "attacking another faith and seeking to cause derision on campus." But where does a college administration, whose own institution claims to value speech that is even "offensive, distasteful, disturbing or denigrating to some," decide that this particular topic -- radical Islam -- cannot and should not be spoken about? Is this not a relevant discussion in a world where, since 9/11, over 12,000 acts of terror have been committed by murderous radicals in Islam's name? Does not an ideology which has as its aim the subjugation of other faiths and a world-wide caliphate under Sharia law, and is fueled by billions in petro dollars, deserve, and, in fact, require, some critique and evaluation? And Mr. Horowitz's context for delivering his speech is also relevant; his view is that the current jihad against Israel on campuses in America and Canada is a symptom of the West's accommodation to radical Islam, and part of a wider problem caused by the Left's excuses for, and embrace of, totalitarian movements.

Mr. Horowitz always emphasizes in his speeches that when he is critiquing Islamo-fascism, he is not indicting all of Islam, or all Muslims, only those who use the religion as a justification for jihad. That is clearly the point of his message, and any honest listener to his speeches would think that it was. So St. Louis University's notion that it had to preemptively protect the sensibilities of its Muslim students is at best condescending and at worst another way that unwritten speech codes are constructed, according to attorney and free speech expert Harvey Silverglate, to "protect ideologically or politically favored groups, and, what is more important, insulate these groups' self-appointed spokesmen and spokeswomen from criticism and even from the need to participate in debate."

This obscurantism where radical Islam is being discussed -- or not discussed, as the case may be -- has much wider implications outside the relatively protected campus community, as Anne Bayefsky, from Eye on the, for instance, recently observed. Led by the Organization of the Islamic Conference, the morally-incoherent UN Human Rights Council has passed a new resolution, Bayefsky says, apparently embraced by the Obama administration, that "emphasizes that ‘the exercise of the right to freedom of expression carries with it special duties and responsibilities . . .' which include taking action against anything meeting the description of ‘negative racial and religious stereotyping.'"  Tellingly, and ominously, the resolution was passed to protect one religion and only one - Islam -- and had as its main intention to criminalize blasphemy and essentially exculpate radical Islam by inoculating an entire religion from inspection, criticism, or condemnation.

Most disingenuous is how institutions of higher education like St. Louis University, while horrified by the prospect of a David Horowitz visit, use their claims of academic free speech as a cover for regularly bringing outrageous, anti-American, anti-Israel, out-of-the-mainstream views to campuses -- either in student-run organizations, in course materials and teaching philosophies, in the sponsorship of festivals and cultural events, or in the person of controversial speakers and artists. For example, the concern over offending certain student groups suddenly did not have the same sense of urgency when speakers, with views certainly as controversial as Horowitz's, were enthusiastically invited to the Washington University campus, notable among them Norman Finkelstein, who spoke in 2007 as part of "Palestine Awareness Week," sponsored by Saint Louis University Solidarity with Palestine.

Finkelstein has loudly and notoriously pronounced his extreme views on the Middle East for years, not to mention his loathing of what he has called the Holocaust "industry," something he has called an "outright extortion racket;" in fact, he blames Jews themselves for anti-Semitism.  Writing in Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History, his off-handed, sardonic response to Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz's own book, Chutzpah, Finkelstein accuses Jewish leadership, a group he defines as a "repellent gang of plutocrats, hoodlums, and hucksters," of creating a "combination of economic and political power," from which "has sprung, unsurprisingly, a mindset of Jewish superiority." What is more, he continues, "from this lethal brew of formidable power, chauvinistic arrogance, feigned (or imagined) victimhood, and Holocaust-immunity to criticism has sprung a terrifying recklessness and ruthlessness on the part of American Jewish elites. Alongside Israel, they are the main fomenters of anti-Semitism in the world today." 

Finkelstein's best known work, The Holocaust Industry: Reflections On The Exploitation of Jewish Suffering, cruelly minimizes the magnitude of the Holocaust while simultaneously making the perverse accusation that it is used by Zionists to extract sympathy from the world community and to justify the oppression and subjugation of the Palestinians by Israelis. Despite its popularity with anti-Semites, Islamists, and neo-Nazis worldwide, one critic, Brown University genocide expert Omer Bartov, described the book in a New York Times review as "a novel variation on the anti-Semitic forgery, 'The Protocols of the Elders of Zion' . . . brimming with indifference to historical facts, inner contradictions, strident politics . . . indecent . . . juvenile, self-righteous, arrogant and stupid." Historian David Greenberg was similarly critical of the level of scholarship in The Holocaust Industry, calling it "a hate-filled screed" filled with "pseudo-scholarship, extreme anti-Israel ideology and -- there is no way around it -- anti-Semitism. And it stinks."

Finkelstein, who was recently denied tenure at DePaul and then fired (his fourth such experience at a university), has now also adopted the position that this professional set-back is the direct result for being bold enough to speak up against Zionism and Israel, and he has been punished into silence accordingly, even while he regularly visits college campuses nationwide, usually at the invitation of the Muslim Students Association, where, as he is demonizing Israel and America, he coddles homicidal Palestinians and defends the terror of Hezb'allah with such admissions as: "I did make a point of publicly honoring the heroic resistance of Hezb'allah to foreign occupation . . . Their historic contributions are . . . undeniable." 

So it is telling that when this academic charlatan, this morally-imbecilic Holocaust denier, appeared on the St. Louis campus as part of a multi-day hate-fest against Israel and Jews, no one on the administration thought that the content of Finkelstein's speech might offend or defame any of its students. Might not Jewish students feel intimidated, offended, or otherwise uncomfortable on their campuses when they witness speakers cheering for terrorist groups whose oft-stated goal is the murder of Jews everywhere? When they see the Star of David painted as equivalent to a swastika? When the Jewish state is regularly described as an apartheid regime, a brutal occupier committing ‘genocide' against the Palestinians, and the main obstacle to world peace? When academics claim that that Israel is not morally worthy of U.S. support and only enjoys it as a result of a pernicious, cabal-like "Israel lobby" working against America's best interests? Of course Jewish students are damaged by this prevalent and unrelenting activity on their campuses; but mendacious administrators apparently feel that Jews -- like Christians, white people, and capitalists -- do not require, or do not deserve, protection from being offended or insulted by speech.

Liberal-leaning academics at St. Louis University and on other American campuses seemingly hold the notion that free speech is only good when it articulates politically correct, ideologically-acceptable views of protected victim or minority groups. But true intellectual diversity-the ideal that is often bandied about but rarely achieved-must be dedicated to the protection of unfettered speech, representing opposing viewpoints, where the best ideas become clear through the utterance of weaker ones. For Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, for instance, the protection of free expression for all views was essential, not only to allow discourse of popular topics, but, even more importantly, in instances where unpopular or currently-controversial speech is deemed offensive and unworthy of being heard. "If there is any principal of the Constitution," he observed, "that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principal of free thought -- not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate."

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., director of Boston University's Program in Publishing, is currently writing a book about the world-wide assault on Israel taking place on college campuses, Genocidal Liberalism: The University's Jihad Against Israel.