Opinion: Are haters hiding behind free speech?

Imagine a college student being subjected to verbal abuse, being spat at, and being the focus of harassment because of their gender, religion, national origin, race or simply because of their political beliefs?

Recently, college students on many campuses across the country were once again subject to such harassment and intimidation due to a hatefest known as “Israel Apartheid Week” that has become an international, annual event. Anyone walking through the heart of campus was confronted by a barrier of offensive signs, such as depictions of Jews as bloodthirsty barbarians intent on harming innocent Palestinian women and children, or photos of 13-year old Anne Frank wearing a kefiah (the headscarf worn by Yasser Arafat); one might even have encountered event organizers laughing about the Holocaust. Needless to say, such sentiments have been the basis for anti-Semitic attacks and pogroms for generations.

University administrators facing this issue, to date, have been unable to intervene, because such acts of hatred may be protected by free speech. One young Jewish woman, Jessica Felber, a former student at UC Berkeley, who chose to challenge the status quo, filed a Civil Rights lawsuit against UC Berkeley in federal court alleging that, due to her political views, “…certain individuals and organizations have repeatedly exceeded the boundaries of free speech, engaging in conduct that amounts to harassment, intimidation, threats…both on Sproul Plaza and elsewhere on the Berkeley campus…”

This past December, the presiding judge, U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg, from the northern district of California, while addressing one of the issues of the lawsuit wrote, “As offensive as spitting at someone may be, it very well could constitute protected, expressive conduct, depending on the precise circumstances…”  What are Judge Seeborg’s “precise circumstances” in which spitting at someone is acceptable? And even if it is a legally protected act, is this the atmosphere that we want to nurture on our college campuses?

Under the constitution, a university is legally obligated to protect free speech. That is a given, especially significant at a university such as Ms. Felber’s alma mater, UC Berkeley, where the free speech movement was born in 1964. At that time, on the very same steps of Sproul Hall, students led by Mario Savio and others sought the right to express their political activism. Ultimately they persuaded the university to change its rules, and the steps of Sproul Hall have been the scene of free political expression ever since.

The spirit of those times fomented a breakthrough in how Americans are able to freely express themselves. Where is that same spirit today when it comes to challenging hate? The shift in policy was never intended to provide a breeding ground for the harassment of students because of their identity. Jessica Felber claims that, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the university should have protected her from such a hostile environment. As a result of the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s discussions with UC President Mark Yudof, we know that he is well aware of the complexities of this issue – the conflict between free speech versus hatred run rampant.

What is society prepared to do about the evolving ethos that permits hateful forms of expression to hide behind free speech rights?

Rabbi Aron Hier is Director of Campus Outreach for the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles.  July Hodara is a graduate of UC Berkeley and an intern for Campus Outreach.

A rebuttal to Mitch Paradise

Ed. Note: This is a rebuttal to an opinion piece by Mitch Paradise: “Obama haters beware…The facts

Mitch Paradise accused me of misstating the date of the beginning of what would become known as the First Intifada. He ridiculed me for stating that the beginning of the Intifada was December 8, 1987.

Mr. Paradise claimed to provide three separate sources (Palestinefacts.org, MidEastWeb.org, and Wikipedia) to back up his assertion that the Intifada began on the 9th, not the 8th. In fact, all three of his “sources” repeat nearly identical text – text which had obviously been cut-and-pasted by the respective authors with only slight modifications:

From Palestinefacts.org: Rumors spread that the four had been killed by Israelis as a deliberate act of revenge. Mass rioting broke out in Jabalya on the morning of December 9, during which a 17-year-old threw a Molotov cocktail at an army patrol and was killed by an IDF soldier. His death became the trigger for large-scale riots that engulfed the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

From MidEastWeb.org: Rumors spread that the four had been killed by Israelis as a deliberate act of revenge. Mass rioting broke out in Jabalya on the morning of December 9.  A 17-year-old threw a Molotov cocktail at an army patrol and was killed by an IDF soldier. His death supposedly became the trigger for large-scale riots that engulfed the West Bank, Gaza and Jerusalem.

From Wikipedia: Rumors circulated that the accident was, in fact, a deliberate act of revenge for the stabbing of the Jewish businessman. Mass rioting broke out on December 9 after a Palestinian teen was shot dead by an Israeli soldier after having thrown a Molotov cocktail at an army patrol.

My primary source for the claim that the beginning of the Intifada was December 8 is an in-depth examination in The Jerusalem Post, which meticulously chronicled the beginning of the Intifada: “The accident that sparked an Intifada,” by Michael Omer-Man, December 4, 2011 (http://www.jpost.com/Features/InThespotlight/Article.aspx?id=248036). I believe this Jerusalem Post article carries as much if not more weight than Mr. Paradise’s uncredited cut-and-paste blurbs:

Coming at a time of increased tensions and resentment, many Palestinians believed the deadly collision was no accident, instead assuming it came as retaliation for the stabbing of an Israeli man in Gaza two days earlier. Twenty years after Israel conquered the West Bank and Gaza Strip, quick and constantly sprouting settlements in the territories, economic disparity and dependence, daily friction with the IDF and its military administration, and lingering hostility and resentment toward the establishment of the Jewish state all came together as a cacophony of justifications used by the Palestinians for their first post-1948 wide-spread uprising.

Almost immediately after the first riots broke out in the Jabalya refugee camp on

December 8

, angry popular protests spread through the coastal strip and to the West Bank, fueled in part by Israel’s iron-fisted response. Internationally broadcast images of IDF soldiers using live fire against Palestinian stone-throwers and over 15 resultant deaths in those first weeks also quickly led to world condemnation, and soon thereafter, a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning Israel.

I linked to the above article in the post on my site that Mr. Paradise attacked. Had he thoroughly read the post, he would have seen it. The riots that began the Intifada started on December 8, not 9.

Mr. Paradise is free to make good sport of my conclusions, my political beliefs, and my organization’s tongue-in-cheek name. But I do not believe he should be allowed to call me a liar (or ignorant), when the date he accuses me of misstating is, in fact, correct.