LC must defend free speech, strive against onging crisis

Illustration of a woman with no speech

In the vibrant tapestry of academia, free speech is a cornerstone of intellectual discourse, fostering an environment where ideas flourish, perspectives collide and minds expand. Lewis & Clark is a testament to this philosophy by valuing creativity, multiculturalism and, of course, the liberal arts.

Yet, recent political discourse on college campuses throughout the country have raised concerns about the erosion of this foundational value. The suppression of anti-Zionist rhetoric and advocacy, in particular, has precluded nuanced discussions from occurring in the very places they should be.

At the University of Pennsylvania, approval for a screening of a documentary critiquing Israel was denied. At the University of Indiana, a professor was suspended without due process by an independent review committee for assisting a student group, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, in sponsoring a lecture advocating for peace in the Middle East.

At numerous institutions including Brandeis University, Columbia University, George Washington University and Rutgers University, chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were suspended. In some cases, these universities accused the groups of intimidating other students, supporting Hamas, and disrupting classes, claims which the national organization has strongly denied.

For context, these claims are largely based on these groups’ use of rhetoric describing the Israeli military warfare in Gaza as “genocidal.”

This suppression is only underscored by the scaling back of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs, which are foundational to many institutions’ claims to foster inclusive and diverse cultures.

At the New College of Florida the entire DEI office was dissolved, representing a troubling trend toward the deprioritization of diversity and inclusion on college campuses. These programs promote equity, dismantle systemic barriers and foster a sense of belonging among historically marginalized communities. 

To safeguard the integrity of higher education and uphold the promise of intellectual exploration, LC must reaffirm its commitment to free expression and embrace the rich diversity of ideas and perspectives that enrich our learning community.

The issue of free speech on college campuses is not merely a matter of legal doctrine (constitutional compliance in the case of public universities and upholding institutional promises such as Lewis and Clark’s Freedom of Expression & Academic Inquiry Policy in the case of private universities), but a reflection of our commitment to fostering a robust multiplicity of ideas. 

It is a recognition that true intellectual growth can only occur when individuals are free to express their thoughts, challenge prevailing orthodoxies and engage in open dialogue without fear of reprisal or censorship. In the pursuit of knowledge, there is no room for absolute dogma or orthodoxy; instead, we must embrace the spirit of inquiry with skepticism and critical thinking at the heart of the academic enterprise.

But as the recent congressional hearing at which the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology gave meandering testimony as to the place of anti-Zionist discourse on campus has made clear, rhetoric must be upheld by tangible action; you cannot forego your values once things become controversial. 

Moreover, the most controversial issues in our political culture are often conflated with the tenets of bigotry as a means of invalidating their arguments. If we are not capable of taking the time to outline and examine the concrete differences between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, we risk falling into the trap of silencing legitimate criticism and stifling important conversations about human rights and political ideologies.

The tension between protecting marginalized voices and safeguarding open discourse is central to the debate surrounding free speech on college campuses. While it is essential to create an inclusive environment where all students feel valued and respected, this should not come at the expense of stifling dissenting opinions or censoring controversial ideas. 

Indeed, the very essence of diversity is the recognition that individuals bring unique perspectives and experiences to the table, enriching our understanding of complex issues and challenging us to see the world from different angles.

The suppression of anti-Zionist rhetoric is a case in point, illustrating the challenges inherent in navigating the intersection of free speech, political activism and identity politics. 

While discussions surrounding Zionism and the Israeli occupation of Palestine are undeniably complex and contentious, universities must resist the temptation to privilege certain viewpoints over others. By shutting down conversations on controversial topics, universities risk squandering valuable opportunities for learning and growth, perpetuating intellectual echo chambers and undermining the principles of academic freedom.

The suppression of anti-Zionist student voices on college campuses not only violates the principle of free speech but also risks perpetuating harm against Jewish students. By silencing dissenting perspectives, universities inadvertently condone the dangerous conflation of Jewish identity with the actions of the state of Israel. 

This conflation not only oversimplifies complex political issues but also perpetuates harmful stereotypes and prejudices. Jewish students, like all students, deserve to have our voices heard and our perspectives respected without being unfairly burdened with the responsibility of defending or condemning the actions of a foreign government.

This is not to say that Zionist student voices should be shunned or that they do not belong in these critical conversations; rather, all perspectives must be valued equally for free speech to flourish, and that is not the trend that has unfolded across the nation. Schools must demonstrate their commitment to Jewish students by giving credit to the diverse range of attitudes that compose the rich, contrastive mosaic of Jewish culture.

Moreover, the suppression of anti-Zionist discourse can have broader implications for marginalized communities as a whole.  The value of free speech lies in its ability to accommodate diverse perspectives and challenge prevailing narratives. 

Equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism oversimplifies Jewish identity, ignoring the diversity of political beliefs within Jewish communities. Silencing anti-Zionist perspectives can isolate Jewish students critical of Israeli policies, undermining our sense of belonging on campus. This was the case on the campus of Columbia University when a student chapter of the organization Jewish Voice for Peace (an organization of Jews in support of Palestine) was suspended.

When universities prioritize the protection of certain groups over others, they risk perpetuating a hierarchy of oppression that undermines the principles of equity and inclusion. Just as the silencing of anti-Zionist voices can harm Jewish students, it can also silence students belonging to other marginalized groups whose perspectives may be deemed inconvenient or controversial.

The essence of DEI is recognizing that all individuals, regardless of their background or identity, deserve to be valued, respected and empowered. However, when universities prioritize the interests of one group over another in the name of protecting marginalized voices, they risk perpetuating the inequalities they seek to address. In other words, by suppressing anti-Zionist perspectives in the name of combating antisemitism, colleges still create harm within their communities.

By scaling back DEI initiatives, universities fail to address the structural inequalities that persist within academia and send a chilling message to students that their voices and experiences are not valued or validated.

The attacks on free speech that have occurred on college campuses in the past six months represent a crisis in desperate need of addressing. We cultivate a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us through the clash of competing ideas, perspectives and experiences. As students and scholars, we must remain steadfast in our commitment to upholding these values, even in adversity or opposition. 

In the context of LC, where the principles of free speech and intellectual exploration are paramount, the ongoing national debate on the suppression of anti-Zionist perspectives demands immediate attention. Despite the college’s commitment to multiculturalism and the liberal arts, there has been limited proactive engagement with the free speech crisis on campuses. 

As a majority-white institution, it is incumbent upon us to confront the legacy of privilege and power dynamics that permeate our campus community. This requires not only acknowledging the existence of systemic inequities but also actively working to dismantle them through meaningful engagement, dialogue and action. By fostering a culture of inclusivity and equity, we can create an environment where all students feel empowered to thrive academically, socially and personally.

While LC has hosted events presenting the Israel-Palestine conflict as neutral, there is a pressing need for the institution to actively encourage more opinionated perspectives. By promoting an environment that embraces a variety of viewpoints on this complex issue, our school can exemplify its dedication to the robust exchange of ideas and the promotion of genuine intellectual diversity. It is my sincere hope that LC takes constructive steps to prioritize free speech, ensuring that all voices, including those critical of Zionism, are valued and heard within the campus community.

By embracing intellectual pluralism and fostering an environment where all voices are heard and respected, we can ensure that our universities remain vibrant centers of learning, innovation and social progress for future generations.

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