Daniel Chamovitz

Freedom of speech is not freedom from accountability

My fellow university presidents should quit cowering behind free speech claims and condemn campus hate
A participant holds a placard as students gather during a 'Walkout to fight Genocide and Free Palestine' at Bruin Plaza at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in Los Angeles on October 25, 2023 (Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)
A participant holds a placard as students gather during a 'Walkout to fight Genocide and Free Palestine' at Bruin Plaza at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) in Los Angeles on October 25, 2023 (Frederic J. BROWN / AFP)

On October 9, just 48 hours after the horrific Hamas-led terrorist attack that claimed the lives of over 1,200 Israelis, and led to the abduction of 239, including over 70 murdered and two abducted from my university, I reached out to my American counterparts—presidents of leading universities.

My letters expressed a deep concern: as Israel takes necessary actions to defend its citizens, international perceptions might shift from sympathy to criticism. I serve as president of Ben Gurion University, and I worried that repercussions of the conflict might manifest on American campuses, potentially affecting Jewish students through BDS movements or similar initiatives.

My hope, albeit a cautious one, was that these concerns would not materialize. I wrote, “I am confident that, as always, we can count on your firm stand against any attempts to demonize Israel.” Regrettably, my fears were not unfounded.

Within days, a troubling narrative gained traction on campuses across North America. Astonishingly, the heinous acts of Hamas, including rape, torture, murder, and the abduction of infants, were not just overlooked but were celebrated by some as a form of glorified “resistance.”

Ivy League campuses, the self-proclaimed bastions of intellectual and progressive thought, inexplicably adopted Hamas, whose ideology is antithetical to the values of human life and the liberal values we hold dear, as their cause célèbre. The responses from some university leaders to these developments were, to say the least, disheartening.

In a conversation with Jeffrey Gettleman of The New York Times, I shared my disappointment in the tepid reactions of some of my colleagues. Gettleman, an advocate for absolute freedom of speech, challenged me, prompting a reflection on my own stance. Was I advocating for a restriction of First Amendment rights? 

The debate on this topic is complex, influenced by evolving political and liberal values. I realized that my critique was less about universities permitting free speech and more focused on the failure of university leaders to address hateful and dangerous rhetoric on their campuses. Freedom of speech does not absolve a university president from the responsibility of condemning harmful discourse.

Recall President Donald Trump’s controversial comments in 2017 about the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. His failure to unequivocally condemn white supremacy and racism, suggesting there were “very fine people on both sides,” was met with widespread criticism from both sides of the political aisle. The rally, though protected by First Amendment rights, did not shield Trump from accountability for failing to denounce its dangerous and hateful messages.

Similarly, expressions of support for Hamas, chants like “intifada now” or “from the river to the sea,” promote violence against Jews and target Israelis, and should be unacceptable on American campuses. Academia’s reluctance to condemn such speech under the guise of protecting free speech is not just cowardly; it is morally reprehensible.

Universities are the training grounds for the world’s future leaders. University leaders in these challenging times are not just administrators; they must embody ethical and academic integrity, set a clear example for students, and teach them to delineate the boundaries between constructive discourse and destructive propaganda. From this it follows that university presidents must condemn all forms of hate speech and hate demonstrations, unambiguously, including when it targets Jews.

About the Author
Prof. Daniel Chamovitz is President of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
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