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Joanna Baron: It’s time to stop giving the pro-Palestine protestors the benefit of the doubt

Commentary

At a scrum on Monday morning, Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland was asked about the protests on Parliament Hill over the weekend where pro-Palestine protestors chanted “Long live October 7” and “October 7 is proof that we are almost free.” As Jews were preparing to celebrate our liberation from slavery at the Seder table, and with over 130 hostages snatched by Hamas still unaccounted for, Freeland could not muster a clear condemnation of those who would celebrate their murder, torture, rape, and kidnapping. “I wasn’t in Ottawa over the weekend,” she demurred. 

A few hours later, after gathering her talking points, Freeland issued a statement expressing “shock and disgust” at the protests. But the fact that she needed time to consult with her comms staff before doing so is evocative of a much bigger problem. Imagine a crowd cheering in approval of the lynchings of Black people. Can there be any doubt that Freeland wouldn’t have found herself similarly muzzled in her response?

As protestors were jubilantly celebrating the October 7 pogroms as proof of their imminent freedom in Ottawa, campuses in the United States have been similarly roiled with increasingly tense pro-Palestine encampments. The campus groups are nominally asking for amnesty for students who had been suspended for earlier protests, divestment from certain Israel bonds, and disclosure of how the university invests its billions in endowments.

Some of the happenings at the Yale and Columbia encampments seemed like standard university tactics. There were exhortations to bring toothpaste, dance shows, and zine workshops. There were Shabbat services led by anti-Zionist Jewish student groups and Muslim prayers. I have to admit, as someone who hasn’t studied on a university campus for over a decade, I have a wistfulness for both youthful idealism and the meaning-making impulse to join up with a cause bigger than one’s self.

But erstwhile defenders of the youth simply expressing noble, if somewhat naive, pacificism, are missing the clear lust for violence on display at these protests. As much as I support free expression, the level of support for terrorist tactics like October 7 at these protests is a threat to liberal democracies that cannot be dismissed as mere peaceful protests by naïve youth.

There were cut-and-dry legal wrongs being committed: assault, including where Jewish students and faculty who merely committed the sin of being visibly Jewish were encircled with human chains and physically blocked. There was a young masked blonde woman who carried a sign menacing a group of pro-Israel counter-protestors as “AL-QASM’s NEXT TARGETS,” referring to the armed wing of Hamas that led the October 7th attacks and arguably a direct incitement to violence and clear grounds for expulsion under Columbia’s code of conduct. A Jewish woman, Sahar Tartak, was poked in the eye with a Palestinian flag and had to go to hospital.

But the most loathsome aspect of the weekend’s horror shows on both sides of the border was the unanimity with which pro-war, pro-eradication of Jewish and Israeli life, and pro-terror slogans were embraced by the crowds. The whole crowd joined in on chants of “Go back to Poland,” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground.” 

Two weeks ago in downtown Toronto, a “ceasefire now” pro-Palestine protest let its mask slip when, upon hearing a loudspeaker announcement that the Islamic Republic of Iran had sent 300 drones and missiles to Israel, virtually all those present, including children, hooted and cheered in delight. 

And, of course, in Ottawa, practically the whole crowd went along with gleeful chants in support of October 7. 

These protestors are not for peace, they are for violence— seemingly even beyond the borders of Israel and Palestine. When they say death to America and death to Israel, I believe they mean it.

This truth which is apparent to anybody with eyes and 30 seconds to watch a social media clip is frequently being downplayed as a few bad apples. Special Representative on Combatting Islamophobia Amira Elghawaby tweeted that the “problematic speech” of a “few individual protesters” is unacceptable and contrary to our shared values but then added she was concerned about “deliberate efforts to smear all protesters with one brush. It’s difficult to square Elghawaby’s assertion that it was only a “few individual protestors” when clearly the hateful chants were coming from the whole crowd on Parliament Hill.

Pro-Palestine protestors take part in a demonstration on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, Sunday, Oct. 22, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Spencer Colby

Moreover, the pro-Palestine movement has repeatedly failed to purge itself from its continually prominent hateful elements. Not every Columbia student might have been onside with marking Jewish students as the Hamas Al-Qassam Brigade’s next targets, but there has been no public disavowal of this conduct, nor of violence against Jews and Israelis generally. As Bret Stephens noted in the New York Times a few weeks ago, “The mark of a morally serious movement lies in its determination to weed out its worst members and stamp out its worst ideas. What we’ve too often seen from the ‘Free Palestine’ crowd is precisely the opposite.”

This is no accident. It follows from the ideological foundations of the movement which are plain for anyone to see. The main student organization behind the campus protests, Students for Justice in Palestine, issued this statement after October 7th:

Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea, our people have broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity, taking with it the facade of an impenetrable settler colony and reminding each of us that total return and liberation to Palestine is near.

In the settler-colonialism ideology, which was spoon-fed to the students at the same elite institutions now scrambling to contain its fruits, any critical assessment of the colonized’s means of resistance—apparently, up to and including rape and torture, and slaughter of innocents—is an unacceptable imposition of white colonizer standards.

Alarmingly, this ideological framework also extends to rejecting the basic premises of a free society governed by laws. Yesterday, Students for Justice in Palestine tweeted out “WE REFUSE TO BE SUBSUMED INTO A LIBERAL FIRST AMENDMENT FRAMEWORK!”

What they mean is that they don’t want to be accommodated within a liberal society, they want to burn it to the ground. We’d best listen and act accordingly.

‘You don’t have a First Amendment right to camp out on campus’: FIRE president Greg Lukianoff on how to determine when protest goes too far

Commentary

Yesterday at Yale University, police officers arrested dozens of pro-Palestinian protesters who set up an encampment on school grounds, one of a growing number of organized demonstrations on college campuses across America. While the protests are ostensibly aimed at supporting Palestinian civilians amidst the ongoing Israel-Hamas war, there have been numerous reported instances of protesters engaging in the intimidation and harassment of Jewish students and faculty.

Similar developments were present on Parliament Hill in Ottawa over the weekend. Ottawa Police are reportedly investigating possible instances of hate speech, including chants in favour of the October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel.

The Hub spoke to Greg Lukianoff, president and CEO of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), a U.S.-based civil liberties group dedicated to defending free speech and individual rights. He spoke about the protests, how to determine when protected expression crosses the line into harassment, and the current state of free speech in academic institutions.

SEAN SPEER: What’s your reaction to the protests at Columbia University, Yale University, and elsewhere? And what is the balance here between supporting free speech and protecting Jewish students and faculty?

GREG LUKIANOFF: Since October 7th we’ve definitely seen a combination of clearly protected speech by pro-Palestinian students—speech that we’ve proudly defended because we are a nonpartisan organization; we will always defend people regardless of the content of their speech—but we’ve also seen an awful lot of assault, we’ve seen a lot of shout-downs, we’ve seen a lot of vandalism, and we’ve seen a lot of unprotected speech. It’s been accelerating for several months now.

Probably one of the worst places for this phenomenon has been Columbia University in New York City. What happened over the weekend, with the crackdown on the encampments that they had there, was interesting from a free speech standpoint, partially because you don’t have a First Amendment or free speech right to camp out on campus grounds. You have a protest right. But generally, every school in the country has rules that basically say, “No, you can’t camp here. You can’t turn this into your own encampment.” They just haven’t been enforcing them. So Columbia, to a degree, is paying the price for not actually fairly enforcing their rules, going far back.

Now, do I think that in the course of this, there are students engaged in protected speech who are getting in trouble? I have very little doubt that there are. And we want to know about those cases. But we’ve also seen, particularly at Columbia, examples of assault. Certainly examples of students being blocked and surrounded. Also, students engaging in things that, by pretty much any definition, would count as discriminatory harassment, which is a severe, persistent, and pervasive patterns of behaviour that a reasonable person would understand is discriminatory. And that’s something that we’ve seen, unfortunately, all over the country.

Now at Yale, we even know the student who was stabbed in the eye with a Palestinian flag, and she had to go to the hospital for it. That obviously isn’t protected. I think that there was a chance for a lot of these schools to prevent a lot of this from escalating by simply, fairly, and evenly enforcing their rules from the very beginning. But in a lot of cases, they simply didn’t.

One thing that readers really need to understand is that if you care about free speech on campus, you need to know that last year was the biggest year for deplatforming in recorded history, that we know of, on American college campuses. Deplatforming includes getting speakers disinvited and shout-downs. Yet this year, 2024, is going to blow 2023 out of the water, even just from shout-downs. And that has overwhelmingly come from pro-Palestinian students. Some of them have engaged in violence, including at Berkeley where they chased off an IDF speaker, for example, several weeks ago.

I sometimes see people arguing as if violence is just an extreme form of free speech. I always have to correct them like, “No, violence is the antithesis of what freedom of speech is for.” Freedom of speech is for the peaceful resolution of differences. Violence is completely the opposite and it should not be tolerated at all on college campuses. Students engaging in violence against their fellow students should be expelled. They deserve due process, but they should also be prosecuted because this is this has been getting out of hand for months now.

New York City police officers in riot gear stand guard as demonstrators chant slogans outside the Columbia University campus, Thursday, April 18, 2024, in New York. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo.

SEAN SPEER: Is there a free speech line to be drawn between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? And how can such a line be discerned?

GREG LUKIANOFF: I don’t think you have to really draw a line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. What you have to ask yourself is, is it discriminatory harassment? Is it a threat? Regardless of what line that falls under. So if you’re surrounding students and threatening them, for example, then it doesn’t matter if you’re calling out Israel or calling out Jews, it’s not protected. And nor should it be.

I think that’s one of the things that American law really gets right. It’s something that we call “the bedrock principle” in the United States, which is you can’t ban speech simply because it’s offensive. But you can ban patterns of behaviour that are discriminatory, for example, or you can ban speech that actually would place a reasonable person in fear of bodily harm or death. So we try to get out of evaluating the offensiveness of the expression and into a reasonable understanding of the behaviour. This is a way to not have to make judgments on whether or not we think one kind of speech is more offensive than the other, which of course, is always a culturally laden evaluation to make. That is difficult in a genuinely multicultural society.

SEAN SPEER: Do you think universities that have permitted these instances of intimidation and violence will face consequences in terms of enrollment, donations, and so on? If so, is there room for a market correction of sorts?

GREG LUKIANOFF: I definitely think students are going to be afraid to apply to places like Columbia, in particular—and particularly Jewish students, but not just Jewish students—because of all of the bad examples they’re seeing there. We already know that Harvard applications are down so far this year as well. There are a lot of donors have been saying that they won’t donate to these schools until they do something. So I think that there is potential for some amount of a market correction. But I think that thinking this will be an easy or fast fix underestimates how bad it’s gotten for such a long time.

SEAN SPEER: We’re speaking about a combination of private colleges as well as what you in the United States call “state schools” or public universities or colleges. In either case, what, if any ,role is there for government, in your mind, to address these issues?

GREG LUKIANOFF: In terms of what state schools can do, actually, the government is required to be involved to protect freedom of speech on campus because the First Amendment applies to students’ free speech as well as professors’ free speech. I think they’ve been kind of falling down on the job on this. I think that universities that had speech codes that were unconstitutional, that’s something that the government never should have tolerated in the first place. I think when there are violent shout-downs, that’s something that the government should not be tolerating. I think that the government has really dropped the ball, in a lot of cases, on defending free speech on campus for decades now, and actually, in many cases, have passed regulations that made the issue worse.

SEAN SPEER: Your latest book, The Canceling of the American Mind, sets out a series of institutional and policy reforms to push back against some of the ideological trends on campus that we’ve seen over the past several months and tries to cultivate a free speech culture. In light of some of the developments over the weekend, are there any particular recommendations that you think are especially resonant for the moment?

GREG LUKIANOFF: Well, the very first thing we recommend in the section on higher education is to have a lot fewer jobs in the United States that require a bachelor’s degree. We’ve created an incredibly expensive system. I mean, I know someone who is just realizing that it is probably going to cost their kid $95,000 a year to go to one of these schools. This has been putting Americans in huge debt. We need to really rethink how we do a lot of these things. We need cheaper, more rigorous alternatives to our very strange, and in some cases, very illiberal higher education system in the first place. I think that some of the experiments that are going on at places like the University of Austin give me some hope.

But I think we should be thinking big in terms of the kind of reforms we need. Because even if it was just on bureaucratization and cost alone, American higher education would need major reform. As we were seeing all over the country, particularly in elite colleges, there’s a lot more going on than even just that.