Hate Speech, Free Speech: How Should A University Respond?
The View From CampusRutgers University

Hate Speech, Free Speech: How Should A University Respond?

A screenshot from Rutgers Professor
Michael Chikindas’ Facebook page. JTA
A screenshot from Rutgers Professor Michael Chikindas’ Facebook page. JTA

How to respond to speech that is hateful? Is there a difference between speech that is considered anti-Semitic and speech seen as anti-Israel? And is a swastika scrawled on university property an act of protected speech?

Everyone here at Rutgers, from the university president to rank-and-file students (especially Jewish ones), is trying to figure out the best response to these tricky questions, ones that are being asked on college campuses all over the country these days.

In recent months, four distinct anti-Semitic or anti-Israel episodes rocked our campus, each one varying slightly. In three of the instances, Rutgers professors engaged in what many on campus believed was anti-Semitic rhetoric — either through Internet postings, “academic” writings or in previous jobs. In the fourth event, a swastika was found scrawled on a university building.

The details of each were covered in the press, but for me what is most important is the university’s response to them. Central to this reaction, at least initially, was the university president’s town hall, which took place on Nov. 16 (a video is on Rutgers’ Facebook page) and addressed questions of free speech in light of the recent episodes. During the first 10 minutes of his talk, President Robert Barchi made the case that hateful speech, as much as we don’t like it, is protected under the First Amendment. Even the swastika, which the president mentioned, was protected since it was on a general university building, not one associated with Jewish students.

President Robert Barchi | Getty Images

President Barchi was right: Hate speech is free speech. But his comments were framed insensitively, in terms of their tone, given the severity of the events. Seemingly every day, another campus ignites in protest over hosting speakers that spew hate speech, yet freedom of speech must prevail in order to maintain justice, unless that speech promotes violence (that doesn’t appear to be the case at Rutgers). In essence, what the four incidents represent are four examples of disgusting, yet legal, hate speech.

And while the president stressed their legality, he failed to emphasize their repulsiveness. This is what I view as the crux of the current issue on campus. From a purely legal standpoint, the president is correct. However, on an interpersonal level, he is completely wrong. He seems not to, perhaps even unwilling to, recognize the harshness of these incidents. I am not one who screams anti-Semitism or injustice whenever something harsh occurs. However, the president needs to acknowledge that these incidents require more than just a constitutional review; they require a serious condemnation. The university leadership must take a strong stance that it does not support or approve of individuals who engage in anti-Semitic activity, despite constitutional protections.

The university leadership must take a strong stance that it does not support or approve of individuals who engage in anti-Semitic activity, despite constitutional protections.

Determining the proper response to convey such disapproval is tricky. Some call for the immediate dismissal of professors who spread hate. That’s valid opinion; however, it’s not what I’m trying to argue. Even though the president’s town hall took place before the university had concluded its investigation into the case of food science Professor Michael Chikindas, his remarks should not have included statements that seemed to endorse the professor. After mentioning that a committee was reviewing whether Chikindas can remain teaching, the president said, “But I can tell you that up until this point, his teaching record is actually very strong.”

The president’s initial reaction, though, hasn’t been the only one. Those demanding a stronger response have made their voices heard: letters have been written to the president’s office, petitions have been made and signed, opinions have been published in our campus newspaper. We’re fighting our battle.

In addition, the university announced in December its punishment of Chikindas for the anti-Semitic posts and cartoons on his Facebook page (in one he called Judaism “the most racist religion in the world”); he was dropped from his directorship at the Institute for Food, Nutrition and Health and was suspended from teaching required classes.

As for Barchi, he seemed to backtrack from his town hall address, offering a stronger condemnation following the announcement of Chikindas’ punishment. “This has been a sad and deeply troubling situation for our students and our staff, and for our faculty, who stand for much nobler values than those expressed by this particular professor,” he said in a statement.

Though I admit his new condemnation is worthy, many here feel no closer to him than before. And some feel that he showed his true colors at the town hall, when he appeared in front of everyone and spoke freely. He has tried to write over what he said, but without erasing the original words, all of which leaves a feeling a resentment that is still present.

The four episodes on campus were sickening anti-Semitic acts that require the strongest condemnation possible. We as a community need to demand that leaders recognize the horrific face of anti-Semitism, and where it could lead. 

To read more about the Rutgers Speech Wars, click here.

Benjamin Cohen is a sophomore at Rutgers University. He was a 2016 Write On For Israel graduate.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program. 

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