Last week a friend emailed me a viral clip from the U.S. House hearing on campus antisemitism in which three elite university presidents refuse to say, under questioning by Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., that calling for the genocide of Jews violates school policies on bullying and harassment. "My God, have you seen this?" wrote my friend, a staunch liberal. "I can't believe I find myself agreeing with Elise Stefanik on anything, but I do here."
If I'd seen only that excerpt from the hearing, which has now led to denunciations of the college leaders by the White House and the Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, among many others, I might have felt the same way. All three presidents — Claudine Gay of Harvard University, Sally Kornbluth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Elizabeth Magill of the University of Pennsylvania — acquitted themselves poorly, appearing morally obtuse and coldly legalistic. The moment seemed to confirm many people's worst fears about the tolerance for Jew hatred in academia.
But watching the whole hearing at least makes the presidents' responses more understandable. In the questioning before the now infamous exchange, you can see the trap Stefanik laid.
"You understand that the use of the term 'intifada' in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?" she asked Gay.
Gay responded that such language was "abhorrent." Stefanik then badgered her: "Will admissions offers be rescinded or any disciplinary action be taken against students or applicants who say, 'From the river to the sea' or 'intifada,' advocating for the murder of Jews?" Gay repeated that such "hateful, reckless, offensive speech is personally abhorrent to me," but said action would be taken only "when speech crosses into conduct."
So later in the hearing, when Stefanik again started questioning Gay, Kornbluth and Magill about whether it was permissible for students to call for the genocide of the Jews, she was referring, it seemed clear, to common pro-Palestinian rhetoric and trying to get the university presidents to commit to disciplining those who use it. Doing so would be an egregious violation of free speech. After all, even if you're disgusted by slogans like "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," their meaning is contested in a way that, say, "Gas the Jews" is not.
Finding themselves in a no-win situation, the university presidents resorted to bloodless bureaucratic contortions, and walked into a public relations disaster.
The anguished and furious reaction of many Jews to that viral clip is understandable. Jewish people of many different political persuasions have been stunned by the rank antisemitism and contempt for Israeli lives that has exploded across campuses, where Jewish students have been threatened and, in some cases, assaulted. This week, when I wrote that the backlash to anti-Israel protests threatens free speech, I received many emails from people who felt I was refusing to grapple with an evident crisis.
But it seems to me that it is precisely when people are legitimately scared and outraged that we're most vulnerable to a repressive response leading to harmful unintended consequences. That's a lesson of Sept. 11, but also of much of the past decade, when the policing of speech in academia escalated in ways that are now coming back to bite the left.
Clearly, at many universities, the defense of free speech has been inconsistent. Some elite schools now cloaking themselves in the mantle of the First Amendment to ward off charges of coddling antisemites have, in the past, privileged community sensitivity over unbridled expression. So when university administrators say, as Gay did, "We embrace a commitment to free expression, even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful," many in the Jewish community see a galling double standard.
But as the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a libertarian-leaning civil liberties group, said in a statement about the hearings, "Double standards are frustrating, but we should address them by demanding free speech be protected consistently — not by expanding the calls for censorship."
Unfortunately, that is not what's happening.
"The general point that there's a hypocrisy around free speech and an imbalance around free speech on college campuses is right," said Ryan Enos, a Harvard professor of government. But, he said, many of the people pointing this out "are not doing it to stand up for free speech; they're just doing it because they want to shut down speech they disagree with."
Enos was a founding member of the Council on Academic Freedom at Harvard, formed this year. In October he resigned, because, he said, "Some of the leadership led the charge to restrict pro-Palestinian speech on campus."
When it comes to speech about Israel, there is plenty of hypocrisy to go around.
It's not clear that these college presidents will keep their jobs after their performance at the hearing. But whatever happens, we're likely to see a crackdown on many forms of pro-Palestinian expression. On Wednesday, amid mounting calls for her resignation, Penn's Magill posted an apologetic video statement online. For decades, said Magill, Penn's policies on speech have been guided by the Constitution and the law, but going forward, a different framework may apply.
"In today's world, where we are seeing signs of hate proliferating across our campus and our world in a way not seen in years, these policies need to be clarified and evaluated," she said.
Expect more safety and less freedom.