Engage in free and open debate on Brandeis campus
Among the most meaningful aspects of graduation season are the collective good wishes and farewells that the more permanent members of the Brandeis community send off to those soon-to-be-alumni whom they have come to know over the years. One such professor graciously gave me a graduation gift along with some kind words. Yet this gift represents to me much more than a simple goodbye—instead, this gift is emblematic of what higher education should be, and what it most certainly is at Brandeis University.
You see, I never took a class with this professor. In fact, this professor teaches in a department I’ve never spent a day in and his office is in a building into which I’ve never ventured. Rather, this professor and I met on a somewhat limited basis through interactions in my role as an editor for this paper. In fact, it wasn’t until March of 2014 that our relationship truly flourished through a seemingly counterintuitive process: We disagreed with each other. In public.
In the March 11, 2014 issue of the Justice, I wrote a column on the nature of Israel Apartheid Week and how the language the organizers used, and speakers they featured, did nothing to further any sort of productive outcome for the causes of peace that they claim to stand for; a fairly typical opinion of a Jewish Brandeis student who was raised in the greater tri-state area. In the very next week, this professor responded with his own article, passionately disagreeing with my thesis. He noted the inordinate focus on our campus with what is commonly coined the “Zionist narrative” and how Israel Apartheid Week was an opportunity to highlight the road less spoken here—the “Palestinian narrative.”
The two diametrically opposed articles fostered quite the discussion on campus. Many students reached out to me personally to discuss, and some submitted comments and reader commentary. The conversation continued with many other professors and was discussed on the now notorious “Concerned” Listserv. To be honest, I was loving it; I was contributing to a free exchange of ideas, and with a professor no less!
And then something peculiar happened. I started to receive contact, all from people and organizations from outside the University, who were worried that I—a Jewish, Zionist student—was being attacked by a hardlined liberal professor. One conversation in particular comes to mind: A friend had an extra ticket for a formal pro-Israel dinner event and graciously invited me to come. At the event, one pro-Israel activist approached me, hugged me and hoped that I wouldn’t let this professor silence my free speech. I couldn’t hold back my laughter.
The notion that my speech was, or is, in any way silenced at Brandeis is laughable. At the time that this dramatic acquaintance felt the need to comfort me, I had just recently, and perhaps luckily, been chosen as the Managing Editor of this paper. Until that point, I had been the opinion editor—certainly one of the more intellectually stimulating experiences I have had to date. In essence, I was the one who got to choose what opinion articles got printed; I was the one who helped hundreds of others express their opinions on paper.
And in fact, the only impediment to getting published was, and still is, if the opinion is poorly expressed. The actual opinion being expressed has never been censored in my time on the Justice. Ironically, I was the editor who not only allowed but encouraged this professor to respond to my article! After all, what good is an opinion if no one disagrees? Is it really, then, an opinion at all?
Discussing the concept of free speech on college campuses, or an apparent lack thereof, has become the new fad in the mainstream media. The author Wendy Kaminer posed these questions in a February article of the Washington Post, “How did we get here? How did a verbal defense of free speech become tantamount to a hate crime and offensive words become the equivalent of physical assaults?” A Dec. 2014 editorial of the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Colleges of all places should be encouraging free inquiry and debate. They betray their values, and America’s, when they fail.” A. Barton Hindle wrote in Reason Magazine, “Efforts to make the classroom a ‘safe space’ have made classes unsafe for those whose views deviate from the campus norm.” It would seem from these writers that protecting free speech on campus has already become synonymous with an exercise in futility. Clearly, I must be unimaginably lucky that despite being a white, Jewish, fiscally conservative male with aspirations of success on Wall Street, I managed to survive four years at the predominantly liberal Brandeis without my speech being curbed even a single time.
Many would point to last year’s rescindment of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, or the Wall Street Journal exposé on our apparent bullying problem from earlier this year as proof that I am unquestionably wrong in my assessment of our free speech. Call me naive, but I guess I still don’t understand how a speech that never happened or a spat of “he’s bothering me” have anything to do with the pursuit of a marketplace of ideas. Perhaps such are examples of people’s speech being unconvincing more than unheard.
Brandeis has been an academic experience that I never could have imagined upon entering. But perhaps my most profound take-away from Brandeis is something about the nature of opinions. People can, will and should disagree, even given the exact same objective set of facts; after all, that’s what differentiates us as people from being a collective person. And the ability to express our opinions through speech is what makes us human in the first place.
To quote Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes in his landmark dissent of Abrams v. United States (1919), “The best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market.” Brandeis University surely has fostered this grandiose marketplace of ideas. In my four years on campus, opinions have ranged on every imaginable topic from every imaginable angle—precisely the way it should be. Ultimately, students and professors alike have the right to say whatever they choose, both in this paper and on campus overall. To those who claim their speech has been hindered: Perhaps alternatively, the market, like with any other commodity, is highlighting a lack of demand for your opinion. And to those whose fear has prevented them from speaking up, I assure you, the only one preventing your speech … is yourself.