Raphael Cohen-Almagor
Author of Just, Reasonable Multiculturalism (2021)

Freedom of Expression v. Social Responsibility

Harvard, MIT and Pennsylvania presidents at Congress

The Congressional testimony of the presidents of Harvard, MIT and Pennsylvania on December 5 was shameful. Claudine Gay, Sally Kornbluth and Liz Magill followed the legal advice of their lawyers without applying their own moral judgment and common sense. I believe the First and Second Amendments of the US Constitution undermine civil society. The Bill of Rights was written in December 1791, under very different circumstances, when the United States was very young following a successful revolution, ousting the British crown (1775–1783). The First Amendment provides that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting its free exercise. It protects freedom of speech, the press, assembly, and the right to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. The Second Amendment gives citizens the right to bear arms. Their combination creates a real and vivid danger to American society. It undermines civility by permitting vicious hatred and the ability to translate vile thoughts into vile actions.

In the United States, you can hate as much as you can, and you can have many guns. The result is lethal. The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) shows that there are hundreds of hate groups active in the United States, including an active Nazi party and KKK branches in many states. Each and every year, dozens of people are murdered by hateful people who have the right to buy weapons. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2021, the most recent year for which complete data is available, 43% of all gun-related deaths in the U.S. were murders (20,958), while 54% were suicides (26,328). The record 48,830 total gun deaths in 2021 reflects a 23% increase since 2019. The Pew research, published in April 2023, also says that on a per capita basis, there were 14.6 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 2021 – the highest rate since the early 1990s, but still well below the peak of 16.3 gun deaths per 100,000 people in 1974. American society pays a very high price for its most liberal attitude to freedom of expression and for the right to bear arms. Hate speech DOES lead to hate crime. There is a direct correlation between the two. Therefore, caution is a must when organisations and institutions devise their rules and regulations. Their leaders have a duty of care to their members.

One can expect presidents of universities to be aware of this worrying data. Notwithstanding their institutions’ liberal attitude to freedom of expression, they must balance this very important value against no less important value: social responsibility. Congresswoman Elise Stefanik of New York asked Presidents Gay and Magill whether students calling for the genocide of Jews would be disciplined under their university’s code of conduct. Universities’ Codes of Conduct should be formulated in line with the law, academic freedom, and the university values. Yet, the two presidents preferred to reply to this very simple and direct question in a formalistic, evasive, nonsensical, and utterly irresponsible manner that evoked the notion that the presidents of Harvard and Penn are either lacking common sense or outright antisemitic.

Imagine if any of the three distinguished university presidents had said that calling for the genocide of black people, gay people, Muslims, any other minority group (but Jews), Christians, or women, might be appropriate if said in the proper context. They would have been fired immediately.

Kornbluth, who is Jewish, was the only one to affirm during questioning that antisemitism training is part of MIT’s diversity, equity, and inclusion office.

Harvard and Penn are two of the foremost educational institutions in the world. People all around the world aspire to associate themselves with Harvard and Penn. Their presidents have a responsibility towards tens of thousands of young people who are looking to them for leadership. The Congressional hearing showed that Magill and Gay cannot distinguish between right and wrong, between good and evil. When it comes to Jews, their moral judgment, their moral compass, is extremely worrying.

Penn called an urgent emergency Board meeting that was supposed to take place later this week. The writing on the wall was loud and clear. President Magill resigned before being ordered to do so. If she and President Gay were to remain in office that would mean that American campuses would be awashed with antisemitism, calling for the genocide of all Jews. After all, according to those shameful presidents, this statement is fine “depending on context”. Action is warranted only AFTER Jews are killed. These presidents are willing to accept such a price. We should not. No legitimacy should be granted to racism and antisemitism.

About the Author
Raphael Cohen-Almagor received his doctorate from Oxford University. He taught and conducted research at the faculties of law of the Hebrew University, the University of Haifa, UCLA, University of Hull, Nirma University (India) and University College London. He is President of The Association for Israel Studies (AIS). Raphael is now writing Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: A Critical Study of Peace Mediation, Facilitation and Negotiations between Israel and the PLO (Cambridge University Press, 2025). X: @almagor35
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