When New Jersey Gov. James McGreevey didn’t like what state Poet Laureate Amiri Baraka had to say about Israelis in a poem about 9-11, he took action.
McGreevey, with the nearly unanimous support of the state Legislature, abolished the state-funded post through budget cuts several weeks ago to get rid of Baraka.
In recent weeks McGreevey has said he didn’t like the "abhorrent" views of a Rutgers University pro-Palestinian student group that is sponsoring a national conference in October at the state-financed institution.
But despite calls for the governor to cancel the conference by those claiming it will promote hate and violence, McGreevey has decided not to stop it.
A contradiction? Is one kind of "offensive" speech more acceptable than another?
These are some of the questions being asked this week as elected officials stake out their positions in anticipation of the Third North American Student Conference of the Palestine Solidarity Movement slated for Oct. 11 at the Rutgers campus in New Brunswick.
Not surprisingly in a debate on free speech, the issue is being politicized.
John Bennett, the Republican co-president of the New Jersey Senate, is accusing the Democrat McGreevey of inconsistency.
Bennett, from Monmouth County, opposes allowing the Palestinian conference to be held at a state school, with taxpayer funds. Bennett also had voted to abolish the state poet’s post.
"I think his positions are inconsistent," Bennett said of McGreevey in a phone interview Monday. "I think when you are talking about violence and hatred and killing people, murder (and that’s what were talking about here, murder) it’s got to be the same [response.]"
New Jersey lawmakers ousted the poet laureate post after complaints were voiced about a stanza in Baraka’s 229-line poem about the Sept. 11 attacks repeating the false Internet rumor that Israelis knew in advance about the World Trade Center attack.
Bennett and other critics of the Palestinian conference cite the Web site of New Jersey Solidarity-Activists for the Liberation, which supports armed struggle to liberate Palestinians: code words for support of suicide bombings.
In addition, student leader Charlotte Kates, a Rutgers law student, in March called for "all land between the Jordanian River and the Mediterranean to be returned to the Palestinians," which would erase Israel from the map.
Bennett said these views should not be protected by the First Amendment.
"I don’t believe freedom of speech is unlimited when it comes to expenditure of state funds," Bennett said, noting that the conference will be held at a university building and will receive about $1,200 in state funds. "The line has to be drawn."
Critics in Michigan made similar arguments last year when the Palestinian conference was scheduled for the University of Michigan. The three-day conference took place with no incidents, and pro-Israel forces held a counter-demonstration on campus.
A McGreevey spokesman said the governor acted correctly in both the Baraka and Rutgers cases.
Press secretary Micah Rasmussen said McGreevey is "philosophically opposed" to the views of Baraka and the Palestinian group. Rasmussen agreed that while there are free-speech similarities in the two cases, there is a fundamental difference: While McGreevey found a way to dismiss Baraka, well-established federal law protects the Palestinian student group.
"It is a legal issue," Rasmussen told The Jewish Week Monday. "With Baraka we had the ability to act." But in the Rutgers case, "the law is very clearly on the other side, with the First Amendment."
Shai Goldstein, head of the Anti-Defamation League’s New Jersey chapter, said his group is not trying to stop the conference but to work with Rutgers Jewish groups to counter demonstrate.
"Our perspective is it’s horrible if it occurs on this or any campus, but it’s protected by the First Amendment," Goldstein said.
However, Amcha-the Coalition for Jewish Concerns said it would work with Bennett to cancel the conference.
"Free speech does not give someone the freedom to advocate violence against others," said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld, national vice president of the activist group.
Civil rights experts stress that McGreevey legally has no choice but to let the conference take place.
"Once you permit student groups on campus to advocate their cause, you cannot discriminate against them," said Ron Kuby, a civil rights attorney and radio talk show host. "That’s been the law for at least 100 years."
Kuby chided McGreevey’s initial response to the controversy, which was calling for the conference to offer a balance of opinions. He also rebuked Bennett, saying the student group’s advocacy of armed struggle is nevertheless protected speech.
"There is a demarcation line between advocacy and incitement," which is not protected, Kuby said. The distinction is "the immediacy of the harm."
Deborah Jacobs, executive director of New Jersey’s Civil Liberties Union, criticized the state’s lawmakers for spending their energies blocking free speech in the face of bigger problems.
"With so many challenging economic and social issues facing state lawmakers, you have to wonder why they are taking up so much of their time (and taxpayers’ hard-earned dollars) trying to stifle speech critical of Israel," she said.
Former New York Civil Liberties Union head Norman Siegel noted that politicians often warp the First Amendment for "for political expediency or vote getting."
Siegel said that politicians and the general public often don’t understand that the First Amendment applies to government, not the private sector.
"While a private university could say no, it’s precisely because it’s a state university and public funds, that’s why the First Amendment is applicable here," he said.
Siegel and others said the best response to offensive speech is more speech. Instead of trying to censor Baraka or stop the conference, politicians should use these incidents to create a dialogue and educate the public about the issues, he said.
A Jewish mother of two University of Michigan students who attended last year’s Palestinian national conference weighed in on the issue.
Ruth Beitner, assistant director of the American Jewish Committee’s Detroit chapter, had feared a hate-filled mob scene and wrote university officials.
Instead, Beitner said she saw "young men and women for the most part in vigorous and enthusiastic debate, and I saw respectful disagreement."
Newspaper editorials have applauded McGreevey for resisting pressure from Jewish groups to ban the conference.
"Free speech may not be stifled on the grounds that unpopular (or wrong, or dangerous, or frightening) ideas will be voiced," declared The Star-Ledger of Newark.
The Record of Hackensack noted that some Jewish leaders had urged the governor to block the conference, contending it is anti-Semitic and supports suicide bombers.
"But one of the main functions of any university is to encourage free speech and debate, and to expose students to a wide range of viewpoints, some of them widely applauded and some of them widely detested," the paper said.
- the University of Michigan
- Eric J. Greenberg
- Norman Siegel
- Rutgers University
- James McGreevey
- New Brunswick
- Palestine Solidarity
- Ron Kuby
- Amiri Baraka
- Micah Rasmussen
- John Bennett
- Charlotte Kates
- New Jersey Senate
- New York
- New Jersey
- Staff Writer
- press secretary
- World Trade Center
- Jordanian River