Is This the End of Academic Freedom?
Portside Date:
Author: Paula Chakravartty and Vasuki Nesiah
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New York Times

​At New York University, the spring semester began with a poetry reading. Students and faculty gathered in the atrium of Bobst Library. At that time, about 26,000 Palestinians had already been killed in Israel’s horrific war on Gaza; the reading was a collective act of bearing witness.

The last poem read aloud was titled “If I Must Die.” It was written, hauntingly, by a Palestinian poet and academic named Refaat Alareer who was killed weeks earlier by an Israeli airstrike. The poem ends: “If I must die, let it bring hope — let it be a tale.”

Soon after those lines were recited, the university administration shut the reading down. Afterward, we learned that students and faculty members were called into disciplinary meetings for participating in this apparently “disruptive” act; written warnings were issued.

We have both taught at N.Y.U. for over a decade and believe we are in a moment of unparalleled repression. Over the past six months, since the start of Israel’s war on Gaza, we have seen the university administration fail to adequately protect dissent on campus, actively squelching it instead. We believe what we are witnessing in response to student, staff and faculty opposition to the war violates the very foundations of academic freedom.

While N.Y.U. says that it remains committed to free expression on campus and that its rules about and approach to protest activity haven’t changed, students and faculty members in solidarity with the Palestinian people have found the campus environment alarmingly constrained.

About a week after Hamas’s attacks in October, the Grand Staircase in the Kimmel student center, a storied site of student protests, closed indefinitely; it has yet to reopen fully. A graduate student employee was reprimanded for putting up fliers in support of Palestinians on the student’s office door and ultimately took them down; that person is not the only N.Y.U. student to face some form of disciplinary consequence for pro-Palestinian speech or action. A resolution calling for the university to reaffirm protection of pro-Palestinian speech and civic activity on campus, passed by the elected Student Government Assembly in December, has apparently been stuck in a procedural black hole since.

The New York Police Department has become a pervasive presence on campus, with over 6,000 hours of officer presence added after the war broke out. Hundreds of faculty members have signed onto an open letter condemning the university’s “culture of fear about campus speech and activism.”

Such draconian interventions are direct threats to academic freedom.

At universities across the country, any criticism of Israel’s policies, expressions of solidarity with Palestinians, organized calls for a cease-fire or even pedagogy on the recent history of the land have all emerged as perilous speech. In a letter to university presidents in November, the A.C.L.U. expressed concern about “impermissible chilling of free speech and association on campus” in relation to pro-Palestinian student groups and views; since then, the atmosphere at colleges has become downright McCarthyite.

The donors, trustees, administrators and third parties who oppose pro-Palestinian speech seem to equate any criticism of the State of Israel — an occupying power under international law and one accused of committing war crimes — with antisemitism. To them, the norms of free speech are inherently problematic, and a broad definition of antisemitism is a tool for censorship. Outside funding has poured into horrifying doxxing and harassment campaigns. Pro-Israel surveillance groups like Canary Mission and CAMERA relentlessly target individuals and groups deemed antisemitic or critical of Israel. Ominous threats follow faculty and students for just expressing their opinions or living out their values.

To be clear, we abhor all expressions of antisemitism and wholeheartedly reject any role for antisemitism on our campuses. Equally, we believe that conflating criticism of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism is dangerous. Equating the criticism of any nation with inherent racism endangers basic democratic freedoms on and off campus. As the A.C.L.U. wrote in its November statement, a university “cannot fulfill its mission as a forum for vigorous debate” if it polices the views of faculty members and students, however much any of us may disagree with them or find them offensive.

In a wave of crackdowns on pro-Palestinian speech nationwide, students have had scholarships revoked, job offers pulled and student groups suspended. At Columbia, protesters have reported being sprayed by what they said was skunk, a chemical weapon used by the Israeli military; at Northwestern, two Black students faced criminal charges, later dropped, for publishing a pro-Palestinian newspaper parody; at Cornell, students were arrested during a peaceful protest. In a shocking episode of violence last fall, three Palestinian students, two of them wearing kaffiyehs, were shot while walking near the University of Vermont.

Many more cases of student repression on campuses are unfolding.

Academic freedom, as defined by the American Association of University Professors in the mid-20th century, provides protection for the pursuit of knowledge by faculty members, whose job is to educate, learn and research both inside and outside the academy. Not only does this resonate with the Constitution’s free speech protections; international human rights law also affirms the centrality of academic freedom to the right to education and the institutional autonomy of educational institutions.

Across the United States, attacks on free speech are on the rise. In recent years, right-wing groups opposed to the teaching of critical race theory have tried to undermine these principles through measures including restrictions on the discussion of history and structural racism in curriculums, heightened scrutiny of lectures and courses that are seen to promote dissent and disciplinary procedures against academics who work on these topics.

What people may not realize is that speech critical of Israel’s occupation and apartheid policies has long been censored, posing persistent challenges to those of us who uphold academic freedom. Well before Oct. 7, speech and action at N.Y.U. in support of Palestinians faced intense and undue scrutiny.

Our students are heeding Refaat Alareer’s call to bear witness. They are speaking out — writing statements, organizing protests and responding to a plausible threat of genocide with idealism and conviction. As faculty members, we believe that college should be a time when students are encouraged to ask big questions about justice and the future of humanity and to pursue answers however disquieting to the powerful.

Universities must be places where students have access to specialized knowledge that shapes contemporary debates, where faculty members are encouraged to be public intellectuals, even when, or perhaps especially when, they are expressing dissenting opinions speaking truth to power. Classrooms must allow for contextual learning, where rapidly mutating current events are put into a longer historical timeline.

This is a high-stakes moment. A century ago, attacks on open discussion of European antisemitism, the criminalization of dissent and the denial of Jewish histories of oppression and dispossession helped create the conditions for the Holocaust. One crucial “never again” lesson from that period is that the thought police can be dangerous. They can render vulnerable communities targets of oppression. They can convince the world that some lives are not as valuable as others, justifying mass slaughter.

It is no wonder that students across the country are protesting an unpopular and brutal war that, besides Israel, only the United States is capable of stopping. It is extraordinary that the very institutions that ought to safeguard their exercise of free speech are instead escalating surveillance and policing, working on ever more restrictive student conduct rules and essentially risking the death of academic freedom.

From the Vietnam War to apartheid South Africa, universities have been important places for open discussion and disagreement about government policies, the historical record, structural racism and settler colonialism. They have also long served as sites of protest. If the university cannot serve as an arena for such freedoms, the possibilities of democratic life inside and outside the university gates are not only impoverished but under threat of extinction.

Dr. Chakravartty is a professor of media, communication and culture at New York University, where Dr. Nesiah is a professor of practice in human rights and international law.

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