EDITORIAL: Deny claims of free speech suppression
Recognize true violations
EDITOR'S NOTE: An abridged version of this editorial was published in our print edition, due to space constraints. The full editorial is published here.
Over the course of the past two academic years, the University has seen a large number of media scandals, many of which have been classified under the guise of violations of academic freedom and freedom of speech. In an editorial regarding the rescinding of an honorary degree to Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Wall Street Journal proclaimed, “Brandeis … might also ask if its ‘core values’ now include intolerance and the illiberal suppression of ideas. Our answer would be yes.” A letter from this past semester responding to University President Frederick Lawrence’s stance on statements made on the “Concerned” Listserv, signed by the entire English Department, called on Lawrence to “swiftly and publicly clarify the right of professors to express opinions and explore ideas without fear of reprisal,” implying that such a stance needed to be clarified.
Just yesterday, as published in the Huffington Post, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education named Brandeis as one of the 10 worst offenders of Free Speech on Campus, namely for its rescinding of Hirsi Ali’s degree and for “charging outspoken student Daniel Mael [‘15] with ‘bullying, harassment, and religious discrimination.’”
Reading these reports would lead one to believe that Brandeis is suppressing speech at an alarming rate. Yet this board holds that a closer look at these events highlights the undeniable flaws in this analysis.
Last April, the University rescinded Hirsi Ali’s honorary degree along with her invitation to speak to International and Global Studies graduates. Yet in the exact same statement that rescinded the degree, Hirsi Ali was invited to campus to speak “in the spirit of free expression” to the Brandeis community at large. Instead of engaging in our robust academic environment, Hirsi Ali instead chose to question the environment of critical thinking at Brandeis from a distance. This board maintains that the only person stopping Hirsi Ali from speaking on campus is Hirsi Ali. The invitation remains open.
In response to the publication of many email exchanges among faculty on the “Concerned” Listserv, Lawrence sent an email in which he stated that “some remarks by an extremely small cohort of Brandeis Faculty members are abhorrent.” Professors, in the aforementioned letter, in faculty meetings and elsewhere, have raised their fears of being quieted by the administration. This board ponders the root of such a fear. Although Lawrence expressed his dissatisfaction with some of the comments made by the professors—expressing his own right to an opinion—never has the University made a public statement on the matter. Lawrence was not speaking for the University at large, as the letter was sent to the Brandeis community from his personal email, not the generic and often used “Office of Communications” email address. Throughout the email, Lawrence differentiated his view from that of the University: speaking in first person, he “repudiate[d]” the supposedly offensive statements. Yet when speaking from the perspective of the University, Lawrence only noted that the statements “do not represent the Brandeis community.” Perhaps more significant, no members of the faculty were fired, penalized or saw any sort of University repercussion for statements made on the Listserv. The only faculty member whose “Concerned” emails were leaked and left the University chose to do so of his own volition.
In addition to the Hirsi Ali degree rescindment, the FIRE ranking notes Brandeis’ handling of a community standard report filed by Eli Philip ’15 against Mael. FIRE holds the University accountable for filing the charges brought by Philip. This board wonders what FIRE would have had the University do instead. Would an organization whose mission is to protect free speech on campus rather the University silence the accuser instead of allowing all sides of the case to be heard in a public forum? How could such a hypothetical situation possibly be construed as a better protection of speech than allowing the case to be heard? Ultimately, the case was dropped, neither student faced any sort of repercussion or hinderance of speech, and both continue to thrive on campus as vocal students.
Notably, the FIRE ranking omits the suspension of the academic exchange between Al-Quds University and Brandeis, officially announced on Nov. 18, 2013. The decision was made following a response that Lawrence, and this board, read as offensive. Here, an academic exchange between universities was suspended due to what some saw as offensive actions—one would think that a clear violation of academic freedom and free speech occurred. Yet the only true termination that occurred in this event was the formality of the relationship. Since the suspension, a great exchange of ideas has occurred between Brandeis students and Al-Quds students through the Brandeis University & Al-Quds University Student Dialogue Initiative, spearheaded by Eli Phillip ’15 and Catie Stewart ‘16 . Brandeis students now participate in greater discourse with Al-Quds students than before the suspension. In an email to the Justice at the time, then-Senior Vice President for Communications Ellen de Graffenreid even stated that, “The Al Quds University student dialogue that Eli and Catie have proposed through the Davis Projects for Peace is consistent with Brandeis University’s principles of academic freedom and open dialogue on challenging issues.” Again, the supposed violation of academic freedom is, in reality, nonexistent.
This board affirms that erroneous claims of violation of freedom of speech lessen the true power inherent in that right. In all of these cases, the parties lodging such accusations seemingly confuse suppression of free speech with disagreement over the University’s decision. Not all scandals are inherently issues of academic freedom or free speech. And to all those who disagree with our assessment—we invite you to campus to talk about it.