(September 6, 2022 / JNS) The suppression of any speech that does not conform to hegemonic ideologies is not an uncommon occurrence at today’s universities. What is now labeled “cancel culture” is dedicated to the purging of thoughts and ideas that conflict with liberal notions or the radical ravings of social justice warriors. This unfortunate trend has appeared at law schools as well, where lawyers-in-training feel no compunction about limiting the speech of those with whom they disagree.
In March, for example, activist students at UC Hastings School of Law vigorously disrupted an appearance by conservative legal scholar Ilya Shapiro at an event organized by the Federalist Society. Shapiro, the incoming executive director of Georgetown University’s Center for the Constitution, experienced this collective wrath and opprobrium when he criticized President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court.
By the time Shapiro arrived to give his speech, activists associated with Hastings’ Black Law Students Association had already hatched a plan to use the “heckler’s veto” to shut down the event. Student demonstrators in the classroom blocked the podium while Shapiro tried to speak and screamed “black lawyers matter” while pounding on desks.
At Yale Law School, some 120 students seriously disrupted another March event that featured Kristen Waggoner, lead counsel for the conservative Alliance Defending Freedom (ADF). Ironically, Waggoner was appearing on a panel to discuss free speech issues. Once activists declared that ADF is “anti-gay,” however, it no longer mattered what she would say at the event. The moral scolds at Yale Law School had already decided she should be canceled and they loudly and aggressively shut down her speech.
The latest example of this unfortunate trend took place at Berkeley Law School, where Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP) initiated a campaign to convince the school’s 100 student organizations to adopt a pre-written anti-Israel bylaw.
“LSJP is so excited to announce that multiple student affinity groups and clubs at Berkeley Law have adopted a pro-Palestine bylaw divesting all funds from institutions and companies complicit in the occupation of Palestine and banning future use of funds towards such companies!” the group wrote in an August Instagram post. “LSJP is calling ALL student organizations at Berkeley Law to take an anti-racist and anti-settler colonial stand and adopt the bylaw into their constitutions ASAP!”
In addition to urging student groups to support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel, the bylaw included very troubling language that called for the suppression of any speech that might be considered pro-Israel or pro-Zionist. This included speech intended to correct the many factual and historical inaccuracies in the pro-Palestinian narrative inherent in the insidious bylaw.
“In the interest of protecting the safety and welfare of Palestinian students on campus,” the bylaw read, groups who adopt it “will not invite speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views or host/sponsor/promote events in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel and the occupation of Palestine.”
In language that is Orwellian in its attempt to paint bigotry as a virtue, the bylaw stated that student groups must proclaim that they are “publicly stipulating the organization’s position of anti-racism and anti-settler colonialism to speakers, ensuring that proposals for speakers emphasize the organization’s desire for equality and inclusion.” All of this is for the supposed purpose of creating “a safe and inclusive space for Palestinian students and students that are in support of the liberation of Palestine.”
After the Law School’s Dean Erwin Chemerinsky mildly criticized the bylaw in an open letter, LSJP took to Instagram again to suggest that free speech should only be enjoyed by the oppressed and “marginalized” like themselves. Anyone supporting the racist, apartheid regime of Israel should not have access to the same expression, they claimed. It is perfectly reasonable, they asserted, for pro-Israel dialogue to be suppressed.
“Free speech and the exchange of ideas cannot be romanticized when the byproduct of such rhetoric causes harm to marginalized communities,” the letter read. “The action of affinity groups to exercise democracy and choosing not to platform Zionists, who are either active or complicit in causing harm to Palestinians, from being platformed in their spaces is absolutely a tenable action.”
The notion that a vocal minority of self-important student ideologues can determine what views may or may not be expressed at a particular law school is not only antithetical to the purpose of a university but vaguely fascistic. It grants power to the few to decide what can be said and what must be suppressed. It is what former Yale University president Bartlett Giamatti characterized as the “tyranny of group self-righteousness.”
In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian debate, these activists suppress any speech that defends Israel and counters the lies, distortions and slanders apparent in the language of the LSJP bylaw. In other words, pro-Palestinian activists will brook no challenge to their rancid ideology. There is a reason for this: If criticism of their talking points were permitted, people would see them for the lies that they are.
The Berkeley student groups that adopted the bylaw revealed a breathtaking audacity and hypocrisy, taking it upon themselves to decide which ideas can be heard and which can, and should, be censored. This is done in the name of protecting the sensibilities and “safety” of Palestinians on campus while totally disregarding the feelings of Jewish students and other supporters of Israel.
These activists’ ideology assumes that some ideas are morally superior to others by default and that only those ideas deserve to be expressed. They appear to believe that they alone have the knowledge and insight to assess the value of a speaker’s intellectual contributions, and that they should have the power to vet and “cancel” speakers who might challenge the toxic anti-Israel atmosphere prevalent on numerous campuses.
Ironically, however, their censoriousness leaves these students woefully unprepared for the real world. When and if they do become lawyers, they will have to deal with competing arguments, convince a judge and jury and successfully advocate for their clients based on reason, facts, legal precedent and intellectual ability. They will not be able to shut down and suppress the speech of others in the courtroom or present only their side of a case without having the other side present theirs.
The university is meant to be a place where the decorum and procedures observed in a court of law are fundamental to the advancement of learning. That is why universities exist, and why any attempts to suppress certain speech are antithetical to what the university represents and, either in a law school classroom or a courtroom, unfettered free speech is essential. This is true, as Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. put it, even “for the thought that we hate.”
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of the forthcoming book The Slow Death of the University: How Radicalism, Israel-Hatred and Race Obsession are Destroying Academia.
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