Brandeis’ free speech violation cannot be explained away
At the end of its Mar. 3 editorial defending Brandeis’ record on free speech prompted by a Foundation for Individual Rights in Education article titled “Top 10 Threats to Free Speech on Campus,” the Justice invited responses. We deeply appreciate the opportunity to explain why we remain convinced that the incidents described in the editorial violate students’ rights to free speech and properly earn Brandeis a spot on our “10 Worst” list.
Universities exist to enable the free exchange of ideas—all ideas, not just conventional wisdom or ideas that everyone agrees with. Although Brandeis is not legally bound by the First Amendment because it is a private institution, it has a moral obligation to uphold the promises it makes to students regarding free expression. Just a few months ago, University President Frederick Lawrence reaffirmed that Brandeis “has an unyielding commitment to free speech and expression of ideas.” Brandeis’ motto is “Truth, Even Unto Its Innermost Parts.” Punishing people for what they say—or what they might say—is antithetical to this purpose and thus it’s fair for students to assume that they will not get in trouble with University officials merely for expressing their opinions.
It turns out, however, that disregard for free expression at Brandeis is distressingly common. FIRE has highlighted in The Wall Street Journal the harassment charge that Eli Philip ’15 filed against Daniel Mael ’15 after the two engaged in heated discussion following a public lecture over Facebook about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
By filing harassment charges, Philip did not create or participate in a “public forum,” to quote the editorial, where differing viewpoints could be aired. Instead, he forced the issue behind closed doors by setting Brandeis’ confidential disciplinary process in motion.
Protected by that secrecy, the University demanded that Mael respond to Philip’s complaint within two days, although it refused to give Mael a copy of the allegations against him.
Only when lawyers intervened on Mael’s behalf, pointing out that these unfair demands would not fare well either in a court of law or in the court of public opinion, did the University drop the charges. Given this history, it is hard to understand the editorial’s claim that Mael has not faced “any sort of repercussion or hindrance [sic] of speech.” Based on these circumstances, it’s clear to FIRE that the object was to silence Mael, not to promote dialogue.
The editorial also argues that disinviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali as the 2014 International and Global Studies department commencement speaker was not censorship because she is welcome to come to campus to express her critical views about Islam at another time. That offer does not alleviate the harm caused by the censorship inherent in the disinvitation.
The University made a commitment to honor Hirsi Ali for her achievements and then went back on that promise because of complaints about things she had said. No one who has received an honorary degree is perfect. Imposing a “never offended anyone” purity test for the right to speak at commencement can only result in an empty podium.
The Editorial Board stands on firmer ground when arguing that President Lawrence properly called the views of some of the faculty posted on the “Concerned” Listserv “abhorrent.” (The editorial says Lawrence made the criticisms from his personal email account and that the University never commented publicly, although his July 28, 2014, letter with that characterization is on the Office of the President website).
But whether President Lawrence was speaking personally or on behalf of the University doesn’t matter. Just as the Listserv members had the right to swap emails about Israel harvesting organs, President Lawrence has the right to call those views abhorrent. Free speech is a two-way street. One caveat: Authority figures should be careful not to single out for disfavor a particular subordinate’s speech, because doing so can chill everyone’s willingness to take controversial stands or speak truth to power. But that’s not what happened here.
In each of these cases, Brandeis administrators may have thought they were acting in the best interests of the University.
But we at FIRE believe that the University has made expedient decisions that compromise its fundamental mission, which is why it was a “foregone conclusion,” as we said in our Worst 10 List, that Brandeis University would be on our list of the top 10 worst institutions for free expression again this year.
—Catherine Sevenko is the Associate Director of Ligation for Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE).