Opinion: Free speech endangered on campuses, including San Jose State
By David Meir-Levi
Special to the San Jose Mercury News
Few rights are dearer to the American people than freedom of speech. But there are rational and legal limits. Incitement to violence, to unlawful activity, or to the violent overthrow of the American government are not protected as free speech; neither is slander, nor defamation. Free speech does not require that anyone listen, nor that an institution provide a podium for speech it finds objectionable.
I assert that this precious freedom should not extend to those who would exploit it in order to interfere with the free speech of others.
I witnessed that interference at San Jose State University on Feb. 5.
The guest speaker was Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor. The lecture hall was almost full 30 minutes before the event began. Women wearing Muslim head coverings and men and other women sporting the traditional Palestinian neck scarves had come early to pack the room. Some brought anti-Israel posters and Palestinian flags. During Tor’s presentation there were hostile interruptions from these early arrivals; but when the consul general attempted to respond, politely and thoughtfully, he was vociferously shouted down.
The threat is real
It became clear that these disruptive elements had come with the express purpose of interfering with the presentation. Their well-organized, vociferous, choreographed tactics hijacked the event. Campus police refused to take action because they feared instigating a riot. Ultimately, Tor was escorted out of the room for his own safety in a phalanx of officers.
Other campuses have suffered similar egregious behavior by what appear to be Muslims or other anti-Israel elements. Campus demonstrations by Muslim and anti-Zionist groups throughout the U.S. and Canada have forced universities to cancel speakers for security reasons. Some demonstrations have become violent and destructive — including, just days ago, an assault by a mob on Jewish students in the Hillel House at York University in Canada. Yet anti-Israel groups need no security for their own speakers.
Such behavior poses a grave and long-term threat to the very raison d’etre of the university: the ultimate bastion of free speech, marketplace of ideas and arena for civil discourse and debate. If such hostile forces are allowed to act unrestrained, they will destroy the university as we know it.
It appears that governance at San Jose State and across the country has not perceived the urgency of this threat. There is a critical and pressing need to enforce limitations on groups whose intent is to violate the free speech of others. Such strategies may include:
1.) Prohibiting lending the university’s name to, or approving the use of university facilities for, events sponsored by groups related to those who perpetrate such disturbances.
2.) Escorting demonstrators to public areas where their demonstrations cannot interfere with an event.
3.) Giving notice to audiences that security forces will physically remove disrupters.
Action is needed
University governance must decide where it wants the casualties: either take actions now which may employ security forces to keep order, and perhaps involve lawsuits against offenders; or stand idly by as the forces of chaos hijack our universities and impose their will upon anyone who arouses their ire. The casualties in the former case are the events which may require police action to quell disturbances. The casualties in the latter are ultimately the universities themselves.
University governance must display the courage to protect our freedom of speech from those who seek to curtail it, and to defend our universities from those who wish to usurp them.
David Meir-Levi is a lecturer in the History Department at San Jose State University. He wrote this article for the San Jose Mercury News, San Jose, California.
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