Friends’ Central Debate Isn’t Over Free Speech

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Freedom of speech. It’s a right so central to our political identity that it was codified in the First Amendment and guaranteed to all against the interference of the states through the operation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Freedom of speech protects the right of all to dissent, to hold and voice unpopular opinions, to engage even in politically subversive inquiry, free for the most part of governmental interference and official societal sanction. At academic institutions, it is the animating force behind the concept of academic freedom.

Lara Langer Cohen should know this well.

As an associate professor of English at Swarthmore College and the recipient of the 2017-2018 Frederick Burkhardt Residential Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies — which will fund a year of research at the University of Pennsylvania — she enjoys the benefits of espousing uncomfortable views in the name of rational discovery and the marketplace of ideas.

Freedom of speech is also what enables Cohen to sign and circulate petitions, which she has apparently been doing with gusto.

Her name appears on a 2014 “Call to People of Conscience Not to Speak at the University Of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Until Chancellor Wise Honor the Contract to Hire Professor Steven Salaita.” The statement fronted by the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement concerns a pro-Palestinian professor whose tweets, largely seen as anti-Semitic, during the last Gaza war led to an offer of employment being rejected by Urbana-Champaign’s chancellor.

Cohen’s name also appears among those of more than 1,000 academics at againstcanarymission.org calling out the Canary Mission website, which maintains a database of “people and groups that are promoting hatred of the USA, Israel and the Jewish people, particularly on college campuses in North America,” as an effective blacklist injurious to academic freedom.

And it is Cohen who, according to local press reports, is behind a petition with the signatures of more than 700 alumni of Friends’ Central School urging the Quaker institution to reinstate an invitation to Sa’ed Atshan, the Palestinian professor and LGBT activist whose scheduled Feb. 10 talk was abruptly cancelled by Head of School Craig Sellers after an apparent outcry by some parents.

“As a Quaker school with longstanding commitments to inclusivity, Friends’ Central School should be a bulwark against efforts to bully and silence voices for peace and justice,” Cohen’s petition states.

I’d like to believe that Cohen, along with Mark D. Schwartz, who is representing two teachers dismissed by Sellers over the Atshan kerfuffle, is an earnest free-speech defender. But I have trouble squaring that with the goals of another campaign where her name appears as an “endorser,” the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.

“While an individual’s academic freedom should be fully and consistently respected in the context of academic boycotts,” the campaign’s guidelines state, “an individual academic, Israeli or otherwise, cannot be exempt from being subject to ‘common sense’ boycotts … that conscientious citizens around the world may call for in response to what they widely perceive as egregious individual complicity in, responsibility for, or advocacy of violations of international law (such as direct or indirect involvement in the commission of war crimes or other grave human rights violations; incitement to violence; racial slurs; etc.).”

Such boycotts and activities like them, according to the Philadelphia-based Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, led just last year to Bassem Eid, a Palestinian human rights activist and critic of the BDS movement to be shouted down by members of Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Chicago, the withdrawal of transgender activist Janet Mock from a Brown University event after protests over her invitation to speak from the campus Hillel and the rescission of an invitation from a Syracuse University-hosted conference to Israeli filmmaker Shimon Dotan because of fears of how BDS activists would respond.

When it comes to the free speech of academics, what is good for the goose isn’t good for the gander.

The fact is, what is going on at Friends’ Central has nothing to do with free speech or academic freedom.

Were the original Feb. 10 event to serve a legitimate academic purpose — say, to promote discussion, dialogue, debate, critical thinking, etc. — Atshan would have been invited alongside someone else or, at the very least, as part of a series of talks from a diversity of views pertaining to Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. But that’s not what the school’s Peace and Equality in Palestine Club, nor the teachers represented by Schwartz, had in mind.

On Monday, Philip Scott, clerk of Friends’ Central’s board of trustees, explained to families why, instead of inviting Atshan back to the campus, Sellers is instead backing a task force to develop guidelines for future non-classroom programming.

“It is about the school taking the time and effort to formulate and present intellectual, respectful and comprehensive programs for its students,” he wrote.

A school being deliberative and holding what’s best for students over the politics of a region half a world away and a movement that couldn’t care less about academic freedom? What a novel concept.

Joshua Runyan is the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Exponent. He can be reached at [email protected]