BDS at Brooklyn College, Academic Freedom, and Dershowitz’s Censorship

Yesterday’s post on Alan Dershowitz‘s attempt to intimidate the Brooklyn College Political Science department into withdrawing its sponsorship of an event on the BDS movement, featuring Judith Butler and Omar Barghouti, generated some interesting comments. I will offer some brief responses here.

Jared Michaelson worries about departments sponsoring ‘polarizing’ debate:

The concern is this: a political science department becomes less hospitable to certain students when it embraces, or seems publicy [sic] to embrace, a cause that polarizes and alienates whole student groups. If the Poli-Sci department sponsored an event titled, “Preserving Jewish Rights in Ancient Samaria,” or “Ways to Protect Heterosexual Marriage in a Secular Age,” we’d have the same problem: certain students (Palestinians and Gays/Transgender, respectively) would feel like the department was not hospitable to them.

As far as I can see, that’s the only issue against the sponsorship. But don’t misunderstand: it is absolutely wrong, and possibly unconstitutional, to prevent BDS from speaking at the college. It is equally wrong to oppose a department sponsoring a particular speaker, no matter what he or she advocates. The worry is about departments taking up very polarizing causes. And it’s a real worry.

Politics being what it is, most issues of interest to political science departments and their students are likely to be polarizing, especially on a campus as diverse as Brooklyn College. How about talks on the Bangladeshi genocide? That would offend our Pakistani students. Or perhaps someone would like to talk about the Warsaw uprising and its role in post-war communism. But that might offend our Russian students? Where does one draw the line? As I indicated in my first post, college campuses are where students should be going to have their older beliefs challenged, to feel uncomfortable when presented with unconventional viewpoints and arguments. If college is supposed to be yet another installation of the familiar, then why not stay at home and regurgitate the received wisdoms of one’s community, ethnicity, religion and race? Describing some topic as ‘very polarizing’ is neither here or there; someone might be extremely offended by a talk thought by most to be offering the most banal of bromides. Should the department then call a halt because one person has been so affected? Is there a magic number of students that need to express such fears of being offended before the department should reconsider its sponsorship? Should there be a screening committee that vets topics for their polarizing potential (PP) before recommending that a department sponsor it?

Kevin Murtagh admonishes me for an ‘ad-hominem’ attack on Dershowitz (he also echoes Jared’s ‘concern’ above):

Your ad hominem attacks on Dershowitz are, to say the very least, not befitting someone with a Ph.D. in philosophy. I offer you a comment that I have found myself writing in the margins of my 100-level students’ papers: Don’t distract from the evaluation of the author’s argument by attacking the author’s character.

Also, how, exactly, do you conclude that Dershowitz is engaging in “advocacy of censorship” when he explicitly states “My sole objection is to the official sponsorship and endorsement of DBS by an official department of a public (or for that matter private) college.” In fact, most of his essay focuses not on the issue of whether the event should take place, but rather whether the event should receive the official sponsorship of Brooklyn College’s Political Science Department. What does that have to do with freedom of speech?

First off, I merely described Dershowitz. I did not dismiss his arguments on the basis of his character; I offered independent refutations of his incoherent fulminations. So the charge of ad-hominem dismissal fails.

Second, I am impressed by the level of naiveté in Murtagh’s inquiry, in his wholesale acceptance, at face value, of Dershowitz’s claims. In case anyone had missed the details: a Harvard Law professor is writing Op-eds in prominent media outlets and enlisting the support of elected officials to pressure an academic department to rescind its academic decision to sponsor an academic discussion on campus. Murtagh asked me: ‘What does this have to do with freedom of speech?’ Let me in turn: Are you so naive as to believe Dershowitz’s tactics do not amount to intimidation or coercion? Furthermore, why should Dershowitz get to decide what the content and format of academic discussions at Brooklyn College should be? How did he get to be the arbiter of what constitutes an exchange of ideas? When you attempt to regulate the content and format of speech, you are inserting yourself into a freedom of speech debate. When you attempt to enlist political and media aids to attenuate the exchange and flow and visibility of ideas, you are engaging in censorship. If you believe Dershowitz is merely interested in getting the Political Science department to back off from its sponsorship then I have a bridge to sell you.

8 thoughts on “BDS at Brooklyn College, Academic Freedom, and Dershowitz’s Censorship

  1. You have responded to a critique correctly identifying your argument as ad hominem by doubling down. You may not like Professor Dershowitz, but that does not mean that you have license to ignore or misstate his argument — which is a simple and cogent one: i.e., that academic departments should not set about endorsing contentious political positions because doing so impedes rather than furthers reasoned discussion of such matters. It is not an argument for censorship, and blunderbuss attacks can’t make it so.

  2. By the way, your characterization of Professor Dershowitz as a “plagiarist” is absurd — it is based entirely on charges from Norman Finkelstein involving whether Dershowitz copied quotes of Mark Twain from another author’s book or copied and quoted them out of the original Twain source.

    One of Dershowitz’s most vociferous foes, Phillip Weiss had recognized that the plagiarism charges are “foolish” and — more to the point here — that the “real issue” is Dershowitz’s positions on matters of public concern,

  3. David Lurie: do you really mean to say that facilitating (i.e. co-sponsoring) a talk by the advocate of a controversial position impedes discussion? Are you really suggesting that only speakers who are “neutral” or don’t have any position should speak in an academic context? (I suspect that would be the null set.) Do you really see no difference between sponsoring and endorsement? If my computer science department sponsors a talk by and advocate for Apple’s approach to design, have we suddenly endorsed Apple or its approach?

    Also, Chopra accused Dershowitz of being a pro-torture plagiarist. You have vigorously defended Dershowitz on the plagiarism charge. I’m glad you have your priorities straight.

    1. Wait a second, it is not I who equated endorsement = sponsorship. The organizers of the event did, identifying the poli sci department as among the endorsers of their event. They changed the term to “sponsorship” when attention was brought to the matter.

      In any event, and once again, this is not a dispute about who should speak on campus. If the school had banned the event — I would have objected (despite, and indeed partially because, the event’s purpose is to communicate what the CUNY Chancellor described as an “appalling” message).

      The question is whether a campus event devoted to blacklisting academics and artists from another nation should be given the imprimatur and “sponsorship” of the school.

      As for Dershowitz, not sure what your point is — mine was that, whatever you think of his views (I agree with some, disagree with others), he is not a plagiarist, and should not be described as such in headline.

  4. Should this be a discussion of academic freedom or of BDS and Zionism?
    Which is more important? I’m more than a bit disgusted that academics who privately disdain Zionism now revert to passive aggressive defenses of academic freedom while refusing in public to engage the substance of the larger debate.

    Nadler et al are asking for the department to withdraw sponsorship, or invite someone opposed.
    The department has precedent on it’s side and should make that clear. It wins that argument hands down.
    But there are 1.5 million Jews in NY, including many families of Holocaust survivors. Most of them are Zionist. Politics is bigger than academia, but I’m used to hearing defenses of academic freedom based on the fact that it predates free speech.
    And more and more often now I’m reading academic arguments against free speech itself.
    All obscene.
    Find a larger venue. Invite Dershowitz; invite the public; and bring your A game. Get someone better than Judith Butler.

    1. Why better than Judith Butler? You make provocative and unreasonable demands based on ostensible majoritarian concerns. Just because the majority of somewhere believes something doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be challenged or debated. Nice attempt to through the emotional pitch of Holocaust survivors. In the same vein, why object to a representative of someone who has seen his culture and community decimated and scattered as a consequence of the establishment of the state of Israel and its expansionist policies.

  5. Samir,

    I appreciate your direct and thoughtful response to my earlier comment. But you appear to have mistook me to be worried about topics that may be polarizing, which is a category I dismiss. I took pains to distinguish between sponsoring topics or speakers — which I think are all fair game (bring on Butler and Barghouti!) — and embracing causes. It’s the latter that worries me. For example, I think it’d be a problem if the department itself elected to boycott Israeli speakers or products, or, for much the same reason, to donate extra funds to a group fighting same sex marriage. Such steps cross the line from exploring ideas and viewpoints to activism for (and against) one polar side in a volatile conflict.

    I’m not saying inviting two speakers on BDS is the same as participating in BDS. But it’s on the border; the panel is, after all, not on the question of whether BDS is justified but on how to best pursue the cause. It’s a how-to panel. If a medical school sponsored an event on “How to combat over-vaccination?” it would be insane not to infer that the school, itself, opposed over-vaccination. That’s the issue with the department’s sponsorhip of the how-to-pursue BDS event.

    Also, slippery slope: the line between discussing and embracing a cause is of course blurry, and it covers the full gamut from forum to fundraiser, say. But that is no reason to conclude that the line doesn’t exist or shouldn’t be drawn. Such a conclusion is absurd, as I’m sure you realize.


    p.s. I notice the ‘concern’ square quotes in your next response. I didn’t realize I had only a ‘concern.’ It feels like full-on concern to me 🙂

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