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The case against academic boycott

Blocking a particular viewpoint violates the principle of free speech, and is therefore not constitutionally protected

Are calls for academic boycott constitutionally protected by the First Amendment concerning the protection of free expression? Does academic freedom allow for academic boycotts? My answer to both questions is no.

In the course of 2013, several academic associations in the United States adopted resolutions calling for the boycott of Israeli academic institutions as part of the BDS campaign. Supporters of this campaign have invoked the NAACP case (1982), as a precedent for granting constitutional protection, under the First Amendment, to calls for academic boycott.

In the NAACP case, the Court presumed that calls for boycott constitute “speech,” and therefore they are protected by the First Amendment, especially due to their nonviolent nature, as well as to their purpose to reach political and social changes. In my modest view, the question cannot only involve the issue of ‘violent versus non-violent’ activity.

I do not believe that all speech is constitutionally construed as a First Amendment right. Freedom of speech is about developing a dialogue between two opposing opinions, wherein each claims to be the right one. Freedom of speech is not about favorably received opinions; for this, no need for freedom is pre-required. Freedom of speech is urgently required when offending, shocking or disturbing opinions are at stake.

The concept of an academic boycott stands in contradiction to the notion of dialogue. Academic boycott is nothing but the adherence to the boycotters’ monologue. Monologues can be misleading; they may create the illusion that they represent truth because they are not challenged. Monologues associated with boycott suggest the existence of a single indisputable truth. This is a story of a monopoly claim on truth, which eliminates possible competition, in particular any fair competition, over the truth.

Dialogues, unlike monologues, create a real chance for the truth to surface and emerge. Proponents of an academic boycott either believe that their argument is the only right one, or they are convinced that by constantly repeating their own argument and boycotting their opponent’s, the former will prevail. In my view, either option is wrong. Academic boycotters aspire to disseminating their own opinion while silencing opposing opinions. First, however, a boycotted opinion might be true, and second, even if the boycotted opinion is found to be wrong, there is still a portion of truth in it; and third, even if the boycotters’ opinion is the whole truth, unless it is suffered to be, it will be held in the manner of a prejudice, with little comprehension or appreciation of its rational grounds.

It would also be extremely contradictory to the nature and to the rationales of academic freedom to protect calls that silence other academics from exercising their academic freedom, especially by boycotting them. Such a silencing tactic simply eradicates the boycotted academics’ right to academic freedom, while protecting the boycotters’ claims from the likelihood of any serious intellectual challenge.

In addition, academic freedom, like political speech, and perhaps even more so, is highly related to the development of the academic’s fulfillment of his personal and academic potential. Excluding calls for an academic boycott from the scope of the right to academic freedom represents a justifiable protection of the right of an academic to professional self-fulfillment.

Furthermore, it should be emphasized that the right to free expression is not merely about the right to talk, but rather about the right to attempt to convince others of one’s views. People do not need a right, nor do they need a freedom, in order simply to be able to talk. What they really need is to be protected from state repression and suppression when trying to reach others, thus confronting them with their oppositional views.

Moreover, even if I were to assume that a BDS supporter has the whole, of the truth on his side, constitutional democracy nonetheless provides a protection to the less favorable views, those which are boycotted, thus allowing them to compete over the truth.

Additionally, treating academic institutions as a means for the sake of reaching another end – as good and worthy as this end might be – constitutes humiliation of the academic institutions, thus violating the right to dignity. This becomes truer in light of the boycotters explicit assumption that all Israeli academics are guilty, simply by virtue of association with an Israeli academic institution.

Calling for boycotting Israeli academic institutions violates academic freedom, for treating them exclusively as an object of the state’s scriticized policies. Yet none of the BDS resolutions has provided any compelling argument that associates Israeli academic institutions with any alleged state violation of international obligations and/or rights of the Palestinians, inside and outside Israel. To the contrary, BDS proponents have failed to address strong opposition to calls for academic boycott expressed by leading Palestinian scholars, just as they have denied productive academic collaborations between Israeli academic institutions and Palestinian academic institutions.

To argue that the BDS campaign does not target Israeli individual academics but solely Israeli academic institutions, especially official academic representatives of these institutions, is an artificial assertion. Ultimately each individual academic is an official representative of his institution, since he is affiliated with his institution, receives his salary from his institution, his research is mostly funded by his institution, and it is very likely that his participation expenses in international conferences, including travel expenses, is funded by his institution. Beyond that, all Israeli universities are public institutions funded by the State of Israel.

To conclude, by opposing calls for academic boycott, I have not aimed at arguing that the boycotters may not express their views and assertions on the subject matter of their boycotts, but rather it has been my contention that the discussion must be fair, as correctly viewed by Mill: “…the free expression of all opinions should be permitted, on condition that the manner be temperate, and do not pass the bounds of fair discussion.”

The arguments provided in this op-ed are part of Mohammed Wattad’s forthcoming article, which will be published in Telos 171.

About the Author
Professor Mohammed Wattad is Associate Professor of Law and Dean of the Law School at Zefat Academic College. He clerked for Israel’s Supreme Court. Expert in Constitutional Law, Criminal Law, and International Criminal Lawץ