Fordham University did what no other university administration has done to date. It rejected a student request, which had been accepted by the student government, giving official club status to Students for Justice in Palestine.
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) has well over 100 chapters on U.S. campuses. SJP has led campus efforts, greatly intensified since the 2005 launch of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, to teach college students that Israel should be treated as a pariah state, on the order of apartheid-era South Africa.
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Chapters operate independently, but I know of none that does not support BDS, and I would, therefore, be nauseated if a chapter were to spring up on my own campus. I have written over fifty pieces that explain, among other things, how BDS disingenuously calls itself a nonviolent movement, even though it cheers on violence, too often crosses the line into overt anti-Semitism, and, most relevant to college campuses, effaces the line between activist propagandizing and scholarship within the academic wing of BDS. When Fordham Dean of Students Keith Eldredge says that the goals of SJP “run contrary to the mission and values of the University,” I’m with him.
So why do I oppose Fordham’s decision to reject SJP?
If the facts asserted by Fordham’s critics are true—Fordham has not quibbled with them–Fordham has lent credence to the largely delusional proposition that there is, as BDS proponents often assert, a “Palestine exception to free speech.” In fact, pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli speakers are ubiquitous on college campuses, but if you were looking for a textbook case of a “Palestine exception,” Fordham has provided it and thereby hurt the fight against BDS.
The review process for forming the club dragged on for over a year while campus officials, among other things, consulted Jewish faculty members, ensured that the Jewish Student Organization had a chance to weigh in, and seriously entertained the possibility that, merely by conferring official club status on SJP, Fordham might run afoul of governor Andrew Cuomo’s executive order directing state agencies not to do business with BDS-supporting organizations.
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Having denied SJP, Fordham then ran a series of posthoc justifications up the flagpole, at least some of which alarmed such advocates of free speech and academic freedom as FIRE, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and the National Coalition against Censorship. Fordham claimed that SJP was polarizing, that its “sole purpose was advocating political goals of a specific group,” that it directed itself “against a particular country” and, most plausibly, as I said, that SJP’s goals contradict the mission of the university.
Finally, and this new justification was the main emphasis of Fordham’s most recent statement, “Chapters [of SJP] have engaged in behavior,” such as disrupting speakers, “on other college campuses that would violate this University’s code of conduct.” Unfortunately, Fordham’s dilatory response to SJP’s request for club status, and the scattered rationalizations that followed Fordham’s decision raise the suspicion that Fordham engaged in viewpoint discrimination.
Fordham is a private university, and so it’s possible, though by no means guaranteed, that it can get away with viewpoint discrimination. But First Amendment jurisprudence would probably be on SJP’s side if Fordham were a public institution. In Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of UVA (1995), which concerned the denial of subsidies for publications that “primarily [promote] or [manifest] a particular belie[f] in or about a deity or an ultimate reality,” the Supreme Court ruled against the University of Virginia.
The “government may not regulate speech based on its substantive content or the message it conveys,” the Court explained, and “when the government targets not subject matter, but particular views, the violation of the First Amendment is all the more blatant.” In Healey v. James (1972), the Court ruled that Central Connecticut State College, facing a climate considerably more charged than the climate Fordham faces today, could not deny Student for a Democratic Society (SDS) club status merely because the national SDS organization had engaged in materially and substantively disruptive activities.
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To repeat, Fordham is not an arm of the government, so its actions do not raise the kinds of First Amendment concerns that the actions of public universities raise. However, both of the cases I reference offer reasons for protecting speech especially zealously on our campuses. In Healey, the court says that “the college classroom, with its surrounding environs, is peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas.’” In Rosenberger, the Court says that the danger of chilling thought and expression is “especially real in the University setting, where the State acts against a background and tradition of thought and experiment that is at the center of our intellectual and philosophic tradition.”
That is, the Supreme Court has suggested on more than one occasion that colleges should be more, not less, concerned than other institutions with the rights protected by the First Amendment. It would be a shame if Fordham, which in its own mission and policy statements repeatedly, if not consistently, stresses its dedication to freedom of thought and speech, its tolerance of dissent, and its dedication to academic freedom, were to look at the Supreme Court’s staunch defense of freedom at our public universities and say: “we’re private and demand less!”
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Let me end by returning to Fordham’s best argument, that its very mission of supporting freedom of inquiry compels it to reject bodies like SJP, which in its dedication to academic boycotts and its seeming desire to turn universities into propaganda arms of BDS, contravenes that mission. Must a college and university, which surely considers its mission relevant to its hiring and programming decisions, confer club status, and thereby money and privileges, on a group that will make fulfilling that mission more difficult?
I think that the answer is yes. Colleges and universities that choose to adopt the standards of academic freedom have adopted a version of the view that the unexamined life is not worth living, a view distinguished from other views by its built-in insistence on testing itself. A Socratic university does not fulfill its mission by funding the purchase of books by Plato but not by the anti-Socratic Nietzsche, or by providing meeting space for skeptics but not for believers. The Socratic university fulfills its mission, instead, by fostering a conversation in which all views, including the university’s own, are scrutinized. I have sympathy for students who are not very attached to the First Amendment.
After all, when they look around them, there is not that much evidence that the truth emerges from a marketplace of ideas. But I have less sympathy for universities, which have every opportunity to make a case for the satisfactions of a life guided by reason, yet seem to have so little confidence that students might come to agree that such a life has more appeal than consuming propaganda at a rally. I have no illusions, as a long-time teacher, that it is easy to educate students in this way, but to fail to do so is to fail in the most important respect. Fordham’s move against the SJP reflects not confidence in its mission, but a profound lack of confidence in it.