WASHINGTON, October 19, 2017 ⏤ At colleges and universities across the country, free speech is under attack.
In 2015, a lecturer at Yale was criticized and felt compelled to resign, after she raised questions about the college’s plea that students avoid culturally insensitive Halloween costumes. The ban was seen as an erosion of free speech rights. In March, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, an academic who has looked at connections between race and intelligence, was shouted down by a mob of protestors at Middlebury College. His host was hospitalized when protestors attacked and left her with a neck injury. Again, free speech rights destroyed.
In March, Charles Murray of the American Enterprise Institute, an academic who has looked at connections between race and intelligence, was shouted down by a mob of protestors at Middlebury College. In the melee his host was hospitalized when protestors attacked and left her with a neck injury. Again, destroying their free speech rights.
On October 9, the president of Texas Southern University canceled a speech by a Republican legislator when student protestors tried to disrupt it. No free speech rights in Texas?
Students across the country are afraid to speak their minds. According to The Economist magazine, 61 percent of freshmen are comfortable expressing their opinions. That’s true only for 56 percent of sophomores, 49 percent of juniors, and 30 percent of seniors.
Robert Paquette, a history professor at Hamilton College, told Time Magazine that students often lament that it isn’t safe to express their views because other students or even a teacher might “come down on them” for taking an unpopular position.
“And I’ve raised the question,” he says, “You mean to tell me at Hamilton College, you’re paying $65,000 a year to censor yourself? What kind of education is that?”
Bret Weinstein, a biology professor at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, says colleagues worry that saying or doing something that students find impolitic could lead to complaints and imperil their jobs. “The threat is not an idle one.”
Weinstein, a liberal, opposed the implied coercion of of a “Day of Absence,” when white students were encouraged to leave campus for a day as part of an exercise to highlight the contributions made by minority students. “It’s simply not acceptable to ask people not to come to school on the basis of their skin color,” he says. Angry students surrounded him in a hallway and demanded his dismissal. They also barricaded the school president in a room to air their grievances.
Says Weinstein, “Colleges have to be about discovering what we don’t yet know, and that process will come to a screeching halt if we are leveling threats of bias over the way people phrase things.” He resigned from Evergreen, and the school agreed to pay him a $500,000 settlement in response to the claim that the college failed to protect its employees.
Free speech isn’t under attack just on campus. A Kansas law directs the state “to require written certification from all individuals and companies with which it enters into contracts” that they “are not engaged in a boycott of Israel.”
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has filed suit on behalf of a Kansas public school teacher. Esther Koontz, a nine-year veteran of Wichita Public Schools, was asked to disavow a boycott of Israel as a condition of maintaining her position with the Kansas Department of Education’s Math and Science Partnership Program. Koontz, a Mennonite married to a Mennonite minister, is committed to following the church’s July 2017 resolution “to avoid economic support for the military occupation of Palestinian Territories.”
The resolution calls on Mennonites “to examine the legacy of anti-Semitism in their own history and life.” Similar divestment and boycott motions have been adopted by the Presbyterian Church USA, the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church.
ACLU attorney Brian Hauss says, “The First Amendment prohibits the government from using its financial leverage to impose an ideological litmus test. This law is an unconstitutional attempt by the government to silence one side of a public debate by coercing people not to express their beliefs, including through participation in a political boycott.”
“You don’t need to share my beliefs or agree with my decisions to understand that this law violates my free speech rights,” says Koontz. “The state should not be telling people what causes they can or can’t support. I’m disappointed that I can’t be a math trainer for the state of Kansas because of my political views about human rights across the globe. I am convinced that this boycott could help bring about an end to the Israeli government’s occupation in the same way those tactics helped dismantle apartheid in South Africa.”
The ACLU declares that the Kansas law violates the First Amendment:
“It compels speech regarding protected political beliefs, associations and expression; restricts the political expression and association of government contractors; and discriminates against protected expression based on its content viewpoint.”
At this time, 21 U.S. states have enacted laws opposing any boycott of Israel. The Kansas law is the most extreme, because of its requirement that individuals and companies certify their position. The Israeli magazine +972 reports:
“The state-level campaign to silence BDS (boycott, divestment, sanction) activists is part of a nationwide campaign by groups like StandWithUs and the Emergency Committee for Israel … The drive is supported, in part, by the Israeli government, which has committed millions of dollars to marketing products targeted by the boycott, including those produced on illegal settlements in the West Bank.”
If the Israeli government is financing the promotion of laws such as the one in Kansas, it is directly interfering in American domestic political life. Peaceful boycotts of Israel⏤or any other country is a protected form of free speech. Perhaps the Trump Administration, which spends much time and energy promoting religious freedom, should concern itself with the denial of religious freedom for people like Esther Koontz, a devout Mennonite following the teaching of her church.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, ACLU attorney Brian Hauss declares, “From the Boston Tea Party to the Montgomery Bus Boycott to the campaign to divest from businesses operating in apartheid South Africa, political boycotts have been a proud part of this country’s tradition.”