The crackdown on dissent against Israel shows why we need free speech

Protecting radical dissent requires tolerating right-wing speech.

Two NYPD officers hold the arm of a struggling protester as they walk down a city street.

Police arrest a pro-Palestinian activists at the City College of New York on April 30. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Social justice advocates spent much of the past decade fighting to constrict the bounds of permissible debate on college campuses.

Such activists saw an inescapable tension between the ideal of free expression and the well-being of marginalized groups, both on campus and off. By platforming regressive ideas, universities endangered minority populations in American society while rendering their classrooms less welcoming to students from those groups.

Keeping campuses safe and inclusive for all therefore required narrowing the range of acceptable speech. Sometimes, this meant blocking explicitly bigoted, far-right demagogy. But at some schools, the definition of exclusionary speech grew broad enough to encompass ideas that are not inherently hateful and are held by many people for non-prejudicial reasons. One didn’t need to directly endorse the subjugation of a minority group to disqualify oneself from speaking on campus. On some campuses, merely adopting a stance that would have adverse implications for that group — at least, in the estimation of some of its most vocal members — was sufficient.

Attempts to sanction academics for speech increased dramatically over the past 10 years, according to a 2023 report from the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE). Conservative activists were responsible for 41 percent of these campaigns, but a majority came from the left. In national discourse during this period, meanwhile, conservatives often espoused a support for free speech, while some progressives forthrightly defended restricting free expression on college campuses.

In recent months, however, social justice advocates have been forced to contest the very ideas about speech and inclusion that they had once popularized.

Since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war and the resulting surge of pro-Palestinian activism at American colleges, the campus free speech debate has inverted. Now, it is Republican politicians who insist that college administrators must discern the bigotry implicit in non-hateful speech (such as the chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”) and then silence that speech to protect a historically oppressed minority group on campus.

And they have enjoyed some success. In recent months, several colleges have disciplined pro-Palestinian activists for ordinary speech acts and mobilized force against their acts of civil disobedience. Congress, meanwhile, is on the verge of enacting a law that would empower the federal government to suppress anti-Zionist advocacy on college campuses.

Progressives have lamented such attempts to regulate campus speech as authoritarian attacks on academic freedom. In their estimation, the aggressive policing of free expression at US colleges since October 7 has not served the interests of the marginalized, but rather it has abetted the mass murder of a disempowered people.

All of which raises a question: In light of these developments, should students concerned with social justice rethink their previous skepticism of free speech norms, for the sake of better protecting radical dissent?

I think the answer is yes.

The most compelling counterargument is that norms simply don’t matter. Whatever stance campus activists took toward open debate before October 7, colleges still would have cracked down on pro-Palestinian speech thereafter. The politicians and university donors who’ve pressured schools into disciplining anti-Israel advocacy would be no less intolerant of dissent in a world where the left still uniformly and unequivocally endorsed free speech. Further, in recent weeks, many universities have demonstrated that norms are not an inviolable constraint on their actions, dispensing with preexisting practices regarding student speech and protest — or even rewriting official rules — so as to discipline Pro-Palestinian advocacy.

This argument has real force. It is true that progressive students’ posture toward free speech has little impact on the machinations of university patrons or Republican politicians. And the protective power of norms is surely partial, at best.

Nevertheless, there is reason to believe that progressives would be better equipped to resist the present crackdown on pro-Palestinian advocacy had social justice activists not previously popularized an expansive conception of harmful speech.

Even if this were not the case, the campus left would still be well-advised to tolerate a wider array of political expression. Effectively advancing social justice requires a morally valid conception of what such justice entails and an empirically accurate understanding of how various policies and political tactics would function in practice. No political faction should be certain that they possess either of these things. And the more insulated any ideological orthodoxy is from critique, the more vulnerable it will be to persistent errors.

How Israel hawks have coopted social justice activists’ ideas about speech and harm

To appreciate how broad the conception of intolerably harmful speech has become on some campuses over the past decade, consider the case of Dorian Abbot.

In 2021, MIT invited Abbot, an expert in geophysics, to deliver a lecture about climate change. Students and faculty responded by successfully agitating for that address’s cancellation.

Their complaint was not with the content of Abbot’s planned remarks. Rather, they contended that his unrelated critiques of affirmative action had rendered his invitation to campus inappropriate and oppressive. Specifically, Abbot had publicly argued against racial preferences in hiring.

Progressives understandably object to this position, which could allow racial prejudice to creep back into hiring processes and undermine workforce diversity. At the same time, it is entirely possible to oppose racial preferences in hiring without being motivated by racial animus. Indeed, as of 2019, 74 percent of US adults — including 54 percent of Black Americans and 69 percent of Hispanic Americans — shared Abbot’s view, according to a Pew Research survey.

Nevertheless, students and faculty deemed this stance so inherently harmful to nonwhite people as to disqualify a proponent from speaking on campus about other topics.

Now, opponents of pro-Palestinian speech in Congress are deploying similar modes of reasoning to stifle radical dissent against Israel. Like those who sought to deplatform Abbot, the sponsors of the Antisemitism Awareness Act conflate speech that discomforts some members of historically oppressed groups with speech that causes them intolerable harm. Unlike Abbot’s critics, they don’t aim merely to deny ideologically uncongenial academics speaking opportunities, but rather, to subject them to federal investigation.

The law stipulates that the toleration of various forms of anti-Zionist speech constitutes anti-Jewish discrimination. Under the terms of the bill, universities could lose federal funding by allowing students and faculty to claim “that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor,” or draw “comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis,” or apply “double standards” when criticizing Israel. As the act’s Democratic co-sponsor Josh Gottheimer summarized its contents, the bill “allows criticism of Israel” but “doesn’t allow calls for the destruction or elimination of the Jewish state.”

There is no question that Jewish students on some campuses have been subject to antisemitic harassment in recent months. And some pro-Palestinian students and faculty have evinced contempt for Jewish life by celebrating the October 7 attacks, a stance that qualifies as permissible speech under civil rights law but which is nevertheless reasonably construed as antisemitic.

But calling for the elimination of Israel is not inherently antisemitic. A significant number of young progressives believe that Israel should be superseded by a secular, binational state. One could reasonably argue that this ideal is unrealistic today, but that does not make it tantamount to an expression of Jew-hatred.

Similarly, whether one agrees that Israel is a fundamentally “racist” project because it privileges the rights of Jews over those of Arabs — or that Israel’s actions in Gaza can be usefully analogized to the Nazi Holocaust — it’s clear that such ideas are not inherently antisemitic. Were that the case, you would not see many proudly Jewish intellectuals making those arguments.

But persuading skeptics to recognize these distinctions is more difficult in a world where, just a little while ago, progressives had deemed nonwhite Americans’ majority position on affirmative action to be intolerably harmful to nonwhite students.

Many of those leading the charge to suppress pro-Palestinian speech on campus have justified their actions by referring to such precedents, arguing that Jews deserve as much protection from harmful speech as any other ethnic group.

Lawmakers in the House of Representatives — including some progressives — have found the logic of this position difficult to resist. The Antisemitism Awareness Act cleared the chamber by a vote of 320 to 91 earlier this month.

In the current context, mobilizing opposition to a bill purportedly aimed at fighting antisemitism would always be daunting. But it is plausible that, had the left consistently defended the speech rights of moderates and conservatives, the coalition against that legislation might be a bit broader.

Some social justice advocates will dismiss this possibility on the grounds that those to their right are almost invariably hypocritical and opportunistic in their support for free speech. And yet, although plenty of one-time free-speech crusaders have cheered the suppression of pro-Palestinian dissent, such hypocrisy has been far from universal.

Despite the fact that it draws much of its funding from conservative donors, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) has vigorously opposed attempts to suppress pro-Palestinian speech, even when such speech has taken the form of advocacy for Hamas and the October 7 attacks. The organizer of an open letter to Harper’s Magazine championing free speech, the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, has condemned France’s ban on pro-Palestinian protest marches as an infringement on fundamental rights. And even some on the farthest right flank of the pro-free-speech crowd have come out in opposition to the Antisemitism Awareness Act. The editorial board of Tablet — an online magazine militantly opposed to both “wokeness” and Palestinian nationalism — wrote a column opposing the bill, while Bari Weiss’s outlet, The Free Press, published a denunciation of it co-authored by the “antiwoke” agitator Christopher Rufo, who argues that colleges’ existing codes of conduct are sufficient to protect students against harassment. He went on to say that it’s important to “protect the rights of protesters to express their opinions, even when those opinions are abhorrent.” (Rufo’s opposition is also informed by an aversion to expanding the ambit of “DEI bureaucracies,” which he wishes to abolish.)

It is therefore possible for conservatives to prioritize free speech above the suppression of radical dissent. And it seems unlikely that the number of conservatives willing to set such priorities is fixed and wholly unresponsive to changes in speech norms. In a world where right-wing thought is frequently deplatformed or investigated on grounds of antidiscrimination, conservatives may be more inclined to silence or investigate left-wing speech on the same grounds. In a world where right-of-center intellectuals had more cause for believing that their defense of leftists’ free expression would be reciprocated, by contrast, it seems plausible that opposition to the Antisemitism Awareness Act might be a bit more widespread and its prospects for clearing the Senate somewhat dimmer.

At Columbia, a disciplinary process designed to promote racial equity has been turned on pro-Palestinian activists

Opponents of pro-Palestinian dissent have coopted the arguments of progressive free-speech skeptics. And, in at least one case, they’ve allegedly exploited institutions informed by those arguments.

Long before Columbia students pitched tents on the university’s lawn, administrators at the school and its sister college Barnard had launched a crackdown on ordinary pro-Palestinian advocacy. Last fall, a Barnard student faced disciplinary charges merely for hanging a Palestinian flag from her dorm room, on the pretense that this violated a municipal ordinance. Another student was punished for draping such a flag over the statue of Alma Mater on Columbia’s campus. The “decoration” of Alma Mater was a well-established (and heretofore generally tolerated) form of student protest. When Black Lives Matter protesters adorned the statue, they were not punished but rather celebrated by the university, which approvingly featured an image of their handiwork in its magazine. Yet the pro-Palestinian student activist received two years academic probation and 50 hours of community service for her act of self-expression. Columbia even saw fit to discipline students who had silently walked out of a talk by Hillary Clinton in protest of her support for the Israeli government.

As Columbia law professor Katherine Franke has argued, the university’s aggressive policing of pro-Palestinian dissent is informed by the fact that it has been charged by two lawsuits and Congress with enabling an antisemitic environment on campus. It therefore had strong incentives to err on the side of speech suppression, for the sake of avoiding legal liability or political sanction.

But the university’s over-policing of student speech has also allegedly been abetted by an unlikely force: the recently created Center for Student Success and Intervention (CSSI).

As Columbia law professor David Pozen writes, the university has multiple overlapping disciplinary codes and processes. The most longstanding of these are the Rules of University Conduct. Those rules were established in the wake of the campus protests of 1968 and aimed to maximize students’ expressive freedom and preempt viewpoint discrimination by the administration. When charged for an offense under the Rules of University Conduct, students are afforded representation and other due process rights.

But there is another disciplinary code administered by the CSSI, which was established in 2022 and aims to shield students from discrimination and promote the values of “Justice, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion.” The CSSI’s disciplinary process stipulates a broader definition of discriminatory speech than either the Rules of University Conduct or federal civil rights law, while providing the accused with few procedural protections.

As Pozen explained to Vox, the CSSI provides no right to counsel, bars the accused from making opening or closing statements, and allows the administration to add new charges in the middle of the process.

“The spirit of the CSSI process, they describe [it] as an educational conversational process, not an adversarial one,” Pozen said. “It’s a consultative process where you talk through what happened and acknowledge, confess, and repent and work out an informal arrangement. … It’s the kind of vision which may work well for certain lower-level infractions and where the whole machinery of an adversary process would be unnecessary and counterproductive. But as applied to much more serious cases where expulsion is threatened, a lot of people think that it’s inappropriate.”

Nevertheless, according to the university Senate, Columbia administrators have routed some Palestinian activists’ cases through the CSSI process, seemingly to secure swifter and more aggressive punishments against students.

This said, it is not unusual for CSSI to be given jurisdiction over harassment cases. But because its definition of harassing speech is so broad, it is easy for administrators to embrace a more expansive interpretation of the rules in response to political pressure, which is precisely what some at Columbia suspect they’ve done in cases concerning pro-Palestinian speech. Meanwhile, the university has allegedly routed violations of “time, place, and manner” restrictions on protest through CSSI, despite the fact that such cases normally fall under the jurisdiction of the Rules of University Conduct. As a result, pro-Palestinian protesters facing administrative sanction have been deprived of due process rights.

In response to these developments, Pozen said that he believes there is a “growing appreciation” on campus for “the idea that we should countenance a wide range of uncomfortable speech that doesn’t rise to the level of a clear and present danger or target particular individuals.”

Free speech and social justice are complementary ideals

All this said, there is no guarantee that re-embracing civil libertarian speech norms would enable progressives to protect dissent against Israel’s war crimes — or any other worthwhile cause — in the face of concerted political pressure.

Therefore, if adopting a permissive attitude toward campus speech entailed significant costs to progressive causes, then doing so might be unwise.

And there is doubtlessly some truth to the idea that free speech and inclusivity can come into conflict. A university that routinely platforms advocacy for the innate inferiority of nonwhite people will not be a very welcoming place for nonwhite students. The question of how colleges should handle unabashedly racist or fascistic speech (that does not target any specific individual or threaten any imminent act of violence) is a thorny one.

But outside of such edge cases, the idea that advancing social justice requires policing speech on campus seems plainly wrongheaded.

In truth, suppressing critiques of progressive orthodoxy makes it harder to effectively aid the vulnerable in at least two ways.

First, if students insulate themselves from arguments they find offensive but which enjoy significant political support in the country writ large, then they will be ill-equipped to rebut those contentions. The fact that there is considerable public opposition to affirmative action does not tell us anything in particular about the moral validity of that position. But it does mean that combating it is liable to require persuading many Americans to change their views. Progressive students may struggle at that task if they lack either familiarity with some of the ideas informing such opposition or experience in arguing against those ideas.

More fundamentally, effectively advancing social justice requires a morally valid conception of what justice entails and an empirically accurate understanding of how to further it in various domains. And none of us should be fully confident that we possess either of these things.

Every ideological tradition in the United States has, at one point or another, endorsed positions that it now rejects. Progressives once advocated for eugenics; campus leftists, for the glory of Maoism; liberals, for the Vietnam War. Certainty that none of our contemporary policy commitments are morally faulty or practically misguided has little foundation beyond self-flattery.

If left-wing students deter their peers and professors from voicing skepticism of their ideas or pursuing lines of academic inquiry that might challenge progressive orthodoxies, then they will be more vulnerable to persistent errors.

When supporters of Israel refuse to engage with the claim that it has committed atrocities in Gaza on the grounds that such charges are antisemitic, they allow motivated reasoning and historical grievance to blind them to morally vital facts. Those of us on the left should not delude ourselves into thinking we are fundamentally incapable of making similar mistakes.

Defending free speech and standing up for the disempowered may sometimes be competing objectives. But as recent debates over the war in Gaza have indicated, the two endeavors are generally complementary.


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