Tag Archives: Islamophobia

How ‘Soft Censorship’ Works at College

These days, administrators at public universities must be very jealous of their counterparts at private institutions. As non-governmental actors, private college administrators can suppress any speech they don’t like – or, probably more to the point, that displeases their dissent-intolerant student constituents.

There is no better illustration of the extremes to which a university will go to suppress speech than the recent actions by DePaul University, a private institution. Two student groups had invited noted conservative Ben Shapiro to speak at an event they were sponsoring, “Trigger Warnings, Safe Spaces and Attacks on Free Speech.” The university, however, banned him from attending the event either as a speaker or as a member of the audience. Administrators claimed that the sponsoring groups had not properly registered Mr. Shapiro as a speaker and that the university was concerned with security issues.

Related: Feminist Censored from Censorship Panel

Public universities have the same incentives to ban speakers like Mr. Shapiro, but they have less leeway than their private counterparts. For example, the president of California State University, Los Angeles, giving in to student protestors, cancelled a scheduled speech by Mr. Shapiro just days before it was to take place. But Mr. Shapiro vowed to show up anyway. And appropriately using the First Amendment as a weapon, he threatened the university with a lawsuit.

Those tactics yielded the desired result: the president backed down and allowed the speech to go forward as planned.

Although public universities cannot suppress speech using heavy-handed tactics, they can use more subtle measures to chip away at free speech, as illustrated by my experience at Brooklyn College, a public institution where I teach.

In April 2015, I sponsored a talk at the college entitled “Free Speech and Social Criticism,” by prominent blogger Pamela Geller. A few hours after I publicized Ms. Geller’s upcoming event, the national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) emailed the college president, the provost, and other campus officials asking if it was true that Brooklyn College was hosting “the nation’s leading Islamophobe.”

Related: A New Age of College Censorship

Apparently prompted by that email, the provost phoned my department chair at his home early (7:30 AM) the next day to discuss the event. There was no legitimate basis for that call. First, my department (earth science) had nothing to do with the event.  Second, the provost’s office has no administrative responsibilities over campus events of that sort. Further, had the provost been genuinely interested in information about the event, he should have called me, its sole sponsor.

Because there was no legitimate reason for it, I have to assume that the call was intended

to send a message. Emails from an influential lobbying group had apparently alarmed and displeased the administration. Calling my boss was a means of conveying that displeasure to me in the hope of getting me to modify my plans. Simply put, the provost became the conduit by which political pressure from CAIR to back off the event was transferred to me.

Related: Harmless College Jokes Punished at Civility Seminar

In a similar example of soft censorship, a college vice president telephoned the speaker I had lined up to open the Geller event. (That speaker teaches at Kingsborough Community College, which, like Brooklyn College, is a branch of the City University of New York.) He asked if she would care to discuss her role in the event. That call to a speaker at my event was also wholly unjustified: First Amendment case law forbids administrators at publicly funded universities from involving themselves in the content of events sponsored by their faculty or students, who are free to choose themes and presenters as they see fit.

At a minimum, these telephone calls from upper-echelon administrators were chilling to free speech and open communication on campus.  Would faculty be eager to participate in provocative or politically incorrect events if their participation generated investigative calls from provosts and vice presidents? That kind of pressure can easily chill speech. Some faculty – especially untenured ones – would avoid sponsoring or participating in controversial talks in order to avoid the ire of – and possible retribution from – their administrative superiors. Even I will think twice before doing so again.

I get it: college administrators hate controversy and use small acts of suppression – soft censorship – to help them avoid it. But speech suppression, even when subtle, is still antithetical to a core mission of a university – fostering unfettered debate. An open discussion of the largely hidden practice of soft censorship may help preserve that core mission.

Worry about Islamophobia, but Not Anti-Semitism

Southern Connecticut State University, where I teach, has gone to great lengths to accommodate Muslims — and reject the slightest manifestations of Islamophobia — while acting complacently toward egregious anti-Semitism and hate crimes. Concurrently, widely publicized events at Vassar and Oberlin Colleges reveal that displays of anti-Semitism typically cause uproar within the Jewish community but near silence by others, who even go so far as to defend hateful expression as freedom of speech.

In recent months, anti-Semitic and anti-Israel bullying, misrepresentation and double standards have been common fare. In one case, an academic named Jasbir Puar who claims to be a feminist, and who is associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, gave voice to the latter. In her controversial Feb. 3, 2016 lecture at Vassar, Puar asserted that Israel conducts scientific experiments in “stunting growth” of Palestinian bodies. Apart from engaging in classic forms of anti-Semitic blood libel, she is a queer theorist of so-called “homonationalism,” or the concept that LGBT people in progressive liberal Western countries where they have won civil liberties have become “co-opted” and “discriminate against” other minorities — specifically Muslim immigrants, whom they falsely accuse of harboring homophobia. Puar, operating in what Hillary Clinton calls the “evidence free zone,” turns against feminist concerns, demonizes Western LGBT people and Israel, and accepts Islamic fundamentalism as the manifestation of legitimate Muslim grievances against the West.

A Troubling Report on Anti-Semitism

Worse still, at Oberlin, Assistant Professor Joy Karega, who teaches rhetoric and composition, has given voice on Facebook to bizarre and virulent anti-Semitic rants, blaming Jews and Israelis for masterminding 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks and the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014. In response to communications she has received from others castigating her or attempting to educate her about antisemitism, she has announced that she plans to write a book-length work defending anti-Semitic conspiracy theories as legitimate responses against those with “hegemonic power,” and, basically, to critique how Jews conspire to silence anti-Semitic expression.

In the meantime, the observant Jewish president of Oberlin, Marvin Krislov, initially responded only tepidly, by defending her right to “academic freedom of speech” but without offering any acknowledgment of the vicious anti-Semitism of her posts. Only after intense pressure from Jewish groups has the Oberlin Board of Trustees recently released a statement of condemnation with the suggestion of taking disciplinary action. Meanwhile Karega would surely have been immediately and severely reprimanded publicly had she engaged in anti-Islam (or sexist, racist, or homophobic) conspiracy theories.

At my own institution, in December 2015, the Faculty Senate — which putatively deals with matters involving academic policy and administration — held a regular meeting that showed how the practice of ignoring anti-Semitism while focusing on Islamophobia operates. During that meeting, one Senator mentioned that some students had made a derogatory comment to another student about her hijab. A Muslim faculty member who was present also said that Muslim students had come to her with concerns over how they were perceived on campus. These events quickly led to an impassioned discussion about anti-Islam bias.

This public conversation took place on a campus where there are a sizeable number of Islamic students who usually interact seamlessly with non-Islamic students and where views of Donald Trump range from disapproval to disgust. However the Senate passed a motion and decided to hold, on February 3, 2016, a two-hour campus-wide meeting to “raise awareness of Islam.” The Senate justified the choice of this time to ensure that as many professors as possible would be able to attend and bring their students. The Senate scheduled the forum to take place at one of the largest venues on campus, and Faculty Senate President William Faraclas announced plans for an aggressive campaign of public outreach.

Steering Orthodox Jews Away from Massad at Columbia

Insofar as bias against and ignorance of Islam remains prevalent, the Faculty Senate action was commendable, appropriate and timely. But the lavish attention given to this one form of prejudice seemed somewhat misplaced. And this is particularly true in light of other remarks offered at that same Senate meeting, at which another faculty member noted in passing during the conversation about Islamophobia that swastikas had been painted in a public women’s bathroom in the main academic building on campus. The Senate was not interested in this comment. Unlike in the case of the remark about Islam, the swastikas were not perceived as problematic, or representative of a more widespread issue that the campus needed to address.

Further, painting swastikas in bathrooms is a hate crime — something far more serious than inappropriate comments about hijabs or concerns about perception. But in the contest between merely negative remarks and painted swastikas, the negative remarks won by a landslide. The Senate went even further: it even canceled its next regular meeting so that the entire Senate would be obliged to attend this forum on Islam.

To my personal knowledge, apart from the swastikas, there have been at least three anti-Semitic hate crimes committed against Southern faculty alone since 2008 — at least one of them involving death threats against the faculty member and her family as well as defacement of Jewish and Israeli materials posted on office doors. Further, during that same time period, Jewish students have complained to me about false anti-Israel allegations made by professors and, led by them, students as well. Rather than the Faculty Senate taking these seriously — anti-Semitic hate crimes and hateful classroom commentaries by professors — it did nothing.

The fact is this: while the mildest critical remarks or behavior directed toward Islam (or any other protected group) produce serious public outcry, anti-Semitism on campus, particularly in the form of anti-Semitic animus directed at Israel, is widely perceived as permissible.

On my campus, after repeated complaints made by Jewish faculty members — but, of course, no one else — a forum focusing on Judaism and anti-Semitism is finally in the planning stages. It remains to be seen whether or not the Faculty Senate will cancel its regular meeting or dedicate similar time and resources to it.

Reprinted with permission from The Algemeiner


Corinne E. Blackmer teaches English and Judaic Studies at Southern Connecticut State University.