Academic Freedom or Hate Speech?
When senior David Lappin heard about an alleged anti-Semite coming to campus, he immediately took action. Asking to speak with specific departments sponsoring the event, he intended for them to withdraw support. However, after several meetings, some of Lappin’s efforts appeared unfruitful. This Friday, April 19, at 3 p.m. Alison Weir will give a lecture titled, “Israel-Palestine: What the Media Leaves Out.”
The event is sponsored by the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, the Office of Institutional Diversity and an outside organization called Charleston Peace One Day. When Lappin first heard about the event, he contacted both the department and office. The office has withdrawn its support, but the department has made it clear that it will not withdraw its sponsorship.
Lappin is not the only individual on campus upset about Weir’s lecture. Many other Jewish students have expressed concerns. Marty Perlmutter, Director of the Jewish Studies Program, appeared cautious of the event and asked the Department of Sociology and Anthropology for an outline of her lecture to potentially provide a respondent to present an opposing side to the argument. However, the department said Weir’s office declined and referred Perlmutter to her website.
Perlmutter had never heard her name before and said he supports his colleagues, but after reading some of her articles, he became concerned. “Academic freedom is an important value where all sorts of ideas are expressed, but on the other hand, hate speech and anti-Semitic views are ones I’m cautious about,” Perlmutter said. “Alison Weir does not have academic credentials. It doesn’t matter if you bash Catholics, Jews or any other group. If that’s her mission, we shouldn’t encourage people to hear her.”
While Perlmutter said he wishes for the event to proceed, because Weir’s lecture falls under free speech, he said he does not support departmental sponsorship because it provides legitimacy to Weir’s words. Perlmutter said that if a student group was sponsoring the event, it would be a different case.
Who is Alison Weir?
According to the event flyer, Alison Weir is “generally considered the foremost analyst on media coverage of Israel-Palestine.” She is also the director of If Americans Knew, a non-profit organization, which some consider a factual source of information on Israel-Palestine, while others criticize it for its anti-Zionist message and portrayal of anti-Semitic imagery.
After leaving her position as editor of the local Marin Scope newspaper in Sausalito, California, she decided to tour the West Bank during the second intifada. Upon her return, she wrote several articles criticizing Israel. When she tried to return in 2002, Israel denied her entry.
Today, Weir travels around the country, addressing audiences through her lectures, which criticize the American media for hiding information about Israel for security and prosperity reasons.
According to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Weir has shared her viewpoint in interviews with notorious anti-Semites and media programs. The ADL notes that some of these programs serve as a “sounding board for Holocaust deniers, white supremacists and conspiracy theorists seeking to broadcast their hatred and anti-Semitism.”
According to the ADL, Weir’s criticisms of Israel has, at times, “crossed the line into distortions customarily found in the literature of anti-Semites.” For example, the ADL cites Weir’s accusations of organ harvesting done by Israelis on Palestinians without their permission as a means of revenge and reparation for the Holocaust.
In an April 4, 2008 opinion article, published in The Greenwich Citizen, Weir described Judaism as “such a ruthless and supremacist faith.” The article, titled “What Our Taxes to Israel are Funding” was criticized for defaming Judaism.
Controversy Surrounding Departmental Sponsorship
After reading some of Weir’s articles, Lappin expressed concern about her Friday lecture. Earlier this week, he contacted the Office of Institutional Diversity, which decided today to withdraw its sponsorship of the event due to Weir’s past remarks being inconsistent with the mission and values of the office.
With regard to the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, Lappin along with traveling Israeli professor Naomi Gale, met with Department Chair Heath Hoffmann earlier this week. The two requested that the department withdraw its support of the event.
“We don’t want them to cancel the event,” Gale said. “We just want them to withdraw support.”
Lappin and Gale, along with Perlmutter, said they were concerned that if the department sponsors the event, it will add academic legitimacy to her message. Lappin expressed concerns by saying, “There is a difference between presenting a different perspective and presenting a message of hate,” Lappin said. “…we are not asking that she be silenced, and we all recognize freedom of speech… I am extremely upset that college funds are being used to compensate an anti-Semite, and this is an issue that should be explored for future speakers on campus who enter the hate realm.”
According to Hoffmann, he receives 10 to 12 money requests each year from various departments, programs, faculty and students to support a quest speaker. Hoffmann notes that he does not always personally support the events or have expertise in the topic being discussed. As a result, he does not “vet” the speakers.
Hoffmann said he supports his colleagues in making “sound judgments in bringing speakers and events to campus.” Hoffmann noted that several of his colleagues are interested in the intersection of peace studies, intergroup dialogue and the use of language to facilitate or hinder opportunities for reconciliation and peace. Weir’s visit is an extension of these interests.
“Ms. Weir’s visit to our campus does not in any way suggest that the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, its faculty (including myself) or its students endorses Ms. Weir’s opinion,” Hoffmann said via e-mail.
Academic Freedom or Hate Speech?
Hoffmann said it does not matter if he supports the content of a lecture because he is an advocate of academic freedom. Hoffmann cited the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), which notes that universities have been rescinding invitations to controversial speakers to avoid criticism. The AAUP opposes institutional self-censorship, writing in 1967 “that the freedom to hear is an essential condition of a university community and an inseparable part of academic freedom.”
Regarding what is academic freedom and what is hate speech, Hoffmann said he questions “the ability of humans to neatly, consistently and accurately classify speech in this way. But, let’s assume we can accurately classify and categorize hate speech, what should we do when we encounter it?”
Hoffmann notes that the best antidote to hate speech is counter-speech, which exposes hate speech for its deceit and false content by setting the record straight, but also promoting tolerance and diversity.
“In that context, I – as an individual or Department Chair – am neither a supporter or defender of Ms. Weir’s ideas. However, I do believe that all ideas and perspectives – even great ideas that marshal unanimous support – need to be scrutinized under the light of day as close examination often reveals flaws,” Hoffmann said. “Allowing ideas – good or bad – to ‘fester in the darkness’ does not allow for dialogue, which my colleagues and I believe is central for positive change and intellectual and cultural growth.”
While Perlmutter said he supports discussion and academic freedom, he said he is not sure if he will attend the event. “I do value academic freedom,” Perlmutter said. “But I don’t value hate speech or anti-Semitism.”
Update (April 19): The College of Charleston has officially withdrawn all monetary support of the event.
To read about the actual event, click here.