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Defending Free Speech
In Solidarity with Columbia Faculty Protecting Students’ Rights
The letter below, collecting more than 130 signatures from the Columbia University faculty today, is one of the best statements I have come across relating to the current situation but applicable to all our universities and the principles of higher education in the Academy. It is understandable and necessary in our society right now, even if regrettable, that we have to justify the students’ right to speak up, to protest, and to express themselves and their concerns. Even if their statements are reflective of their years and not yet fully developed, the basic free-speech and robust inquiry principles for the Academy remain operative principles—which Universities have a profound responsibility and vital role to protect. As a professor in transition because of my own grappling with free speech, and having paid a price for speaking my conscience, I stand in solidarity with the students and commend the faculty who support them.
The original letter is excerpted here:
An Open Letter from Columbia University and Barnard College Faculty in Defense of Robust Debate About the History and Meaning of the War in Israel/Gaza:
The most recent devastating violence in Israel and Gaza that began on October 7, 2023 has had very disturbing reverberations on our campus – for all of us, students, faculty, staff, and the larger Columbia community. We write now to express grave concerns about how some of our students are being viciously targeted with doxing, public shaming, surveillance by members of our community, including other students, and reprisals from employers. These egregious forms of harassment and efforts to chill otherwise protected speech on campus are unacceptable, and we implore every person in the Columbia University community – faculty, administrators, students, alums, public safety – to do more to protect all of our students while preserving Columbia University as a beacon for “fostering critical thinking and opening minds to different points of view,” as President Shafik wrote to the community in her October 18th message about upholding our collective values.
As scholars who are committed to robust inquiry about the most challenging matters of our time, we feel compelled to respond to those who label our students anti-Semitic if they express empathy for the lives and dignity of Palestinians, and/or if they signed on to a student-written statement that situated the military action begun on October 7th within the larger context of the occupation of Palestine by Israel. We have read that statement carefully, and it is worth pointing out that the arguments it makes echo those made by both governmental and non-governmental agencies and institutions at the highest level for a number of years.
The student statement begins with language that should satisfy any measure of decency: “The loss of a human life is a deeply painful and heartbreaking experience for loved ones, regardless of one's affiliation. We extend our heartfelt condolences to the individuals and communities at Columbia University affected by the tragic losses experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis”….
It is worth noting that not all of us agree with every one of the claims made in the students’ statement, but we do agree that making such claims cannot and should not be considered anti-Semitic. Their merits are being debated by governmental and non-governmental agencies at the highest level, and constitute a terrain of completely legitimate political and legal debate.
We are appalled that trucks broadcasting students’ names and images are circling the campus, identifying them individually as “Columbia’s Leading Anti-Semites”, and that some students have had offers of employment withdrawn by employers that sought to punish them for signing the student statement, or for being merely affiliated with student groups associated with the statement. In the absence of university action, students and faculty have undertaken the burden of blocking the images and identifying information broadcast on the doxxing trucks. It is worth noting that most of the students targeted by this doxing campaign are Arab, Muslim, Palestinian, or South Asian.
One of the core responsibilities of a world-class university is to interrogate the underlying facts of both settled propositions and those that are ardently disputed. As faculty we are committed to the project of holding discomfort and working across difference with our students. These core academic values and purposes are profoundly undermined when our students are vilified for voicing perspectives that, while legitimately debated in other institutional settings, expose them to severe forms of harassment and intimidation at Columbia.
We ask Columbia University's leadership, our faculty colleagues, Columbia alumni, potential employers of Columbia students, and all who share a commitment to the notion of a just society to join us in condemning, in the strongest of terms, the vicious targeting of our students with doxing, public shaming, surveillance by members of our community, including other students, and reprisals from employers.