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Chilling Speech Is Not a Way to Fight Bigotry

By Alliance for Academic Freedom

An Open Letter to the University of California Board of Regents on Fighting Antisemitism

New York, NY – July 6, 2015

Cary Nelson, AAF Executive Committee Co-Chair,
Chad Goldberg, AAF Executive Committee Co-Chair,

The Alliance for Academic Freedom urges you not to adopt the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism that, however well intentioned, will be used to suppress political speech. As a group of liberal and progressive academics and scholars, we oppose both the Israeli occupation and also the politics and tactics of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. But we recognize the paramount importance of protecting freedom of speech. No matter how offensive we might find efforts to delegitimize Israel, or attempt to apply standards that aren’t applied to other democratic countries, we are convinced that anti-Israel speech should be countered with arguments and reasoning not prohibitions or sanctions.

For decades now, speech codes as well as more informal mechanisms of limiting expression have been promoted to defend minority students and vulnerable populations from discrimination. We believe such policies are wrong. They chill political speech and threaten the academic freedom of faculty and the rights of students who wish to engage in precisely the type of difficult conversations that are the hallmark of a liberal arts education.

University leaders must speak out boldly, in plain, non-bureaucratic language, when they discern racism, sexism, antisemitism or other forms of bigotry on their campuses. Students and faculty should also be encouraged to use arguments to counter pernicious claims about any group’s racial, national, or other identity. But the move to impose State Department strictures on the discussion of Israel and Palestine will only result in the coarsening of debate and deepening chasms already disturbingly stark.

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