Free Speech at the UW: A UW Professor Speaks out AGAINST FREE SPEECH

Dawg UW AAUP“I was appalled to learn that the UW-Chapter of the AAUP is sponsoring the visit of Steven Salaita to campus.”

TALK: Monday, April 6, 2015
6:00 – 8:30pm  Gowen 301
UW Seattle Campus  MAP
Free and open to the public

Michael Rosenthal , Professor, Department of Philosophy

Dear Prof. Wood and the Members of the UW-AAUP Executive Board,

I was appalled to learn that the UW-Chapter of the AAUP is sponsoring the visit of Steven Salaita to campus.

I agree that Mr. Salaita was indeed wronged by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.  He had been extended an offer for a job and it was wrong to use his abhorrent posts on Twitter to renege on that agreement.  As a member of the AAUP, I believe that academic freedom is a central value for universities and that it is important to stand up for it.

However, I do not think that standing up for academic freedom requires us to ignore the content of the speech that it protects.  Mr. Salaita cannot have it both ways.  He wants his political activism and vitriol to be included under the umbrella of protected academic speech and at the same time does not want the content of his speech to be judged under the normal rubrics of the academy.  He claims that, as a pro-Palestinian activist, he was deeply angry at the actions of Israel during the war with Hamas in Gaza last summer.  But I do not see how this excuses his use of language that many (especially Jews and myself among them) find deeply offensive.

MORE, incuidng my response

His use of well-known tropes of anti-Semitic discourse to express his anger—for instance, his claim reminiscent of the blood libel that “At this point, if Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?” [Salaita tweet,  July 19, 2014]—contributes to a climate in which Jews around the world are blamed for the actions of the Israeli government.  Murderous attacks against innocent Jews in a synagogue in Copenhagen, a supermarket in Paris, or in the Jewish Federation offices in Seattle have all been justified in the same way.

There is a simple way to address this problem.  Anyone who wants to criticize Israel in a responsible manner must carefully avoid the use of such incendiary language.  This is precisely what Mr. Salaita has refused in principal to do.

It seems easy for many people to see the difficulty here in the case of speech that many liberals find offensive, such as invective directed against racial and sexual minorities.  I cannot imagine any academic unit on campus sponsoring the talk of a professor who lost his job due to the use of hateful speech directed against these minorities.  It seems that the case of offensive speech directed against Jews is different and is acceptable to some people on campus.

It is one thing to support Mr. Salaita’s grievance against the University of Illinois, it is entirely another to give him a forum, on the supposed grounds of academic freedom, to defend the content of his offensive speech.

Let’s not pretend that this is a matter of principle.  If it were, then the AAUP would be sponsoring talks by every academic who has been accused of or disciplined for using speech that is racist, homophobic, or sexist, etc.  I don’t see that happening.  In this context, I simply do not believe the disclaimer you add about sponsoring his talk but not endorsing his views.

So the only plausible explanations are either that the UW-Chapter of the AAUP believes that hateful speech directed against Jews is acceptable or that it supports the political causes that Mr. Salaita advocates.  The first explanation is deplorable.  The second is problematic because I do not see the purpose of the AAUP as supporting a partisan political agenda related to the ongoing conflict in the Middle East.

Are you working to advance the interests of faculty at the UW or are you more interested in supporting Palestinian causes?  I don’t see why I should pay my dues to support the latter, whether I believe in these causes or not.


Michael Rosenthal

My Response

I could not disagree with Professor Rosenthal more.

I AM a life long Zionist, have considered moving to Israel, encouraged my own children to consider Aliyah, strongly opposed the Boycotters, and  written about anti-Semitism dressed in the false clothing of a peace movement that ignores the reality of the need we have for a homeland.

BUT, free speech is simply that.  Phyllis Wise, our former Provost, grossly violated Steven Salaita’s rights BECA– USE she was afraid of reaction that should be guaranteed to every American under the First Amendment.

If Professor Salaita does go too far in his speech, then Professor Rosenthal, as well as I, have the right to speak out or walk out.  In doing so we might point out that neither action would be possible for any supporter of Israel speaking out in any of the Arab states. Professor Rosenthal’s message also comes at a time when the Israelis have greatly endangered the future of Israel by electing a Netanyahu led coalition of extremists more than a few of whom sadly may well deserve the kind of strong talk we are likely to here from Steven Salaita  .

My only gripe is that I did not know of this talk.  When is it?  I would like to publicize it on THE-Ave.US and promote attendance.

I hope everyone, including non Jewish readers on this listserv, has a chance to attend a seder and read about  the importance of freedom to my people and to all people who are oppressed.  In that spirit and as a bit of fun on today may I offer this unique view of the seder?