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The ‘Free Speech’ Agenda

By Alan M. Dershowitz

At Harvard, hard-left radicals, led by Professor J. Lorand Matory ’82, claim that they are being muzzled. At last week’s Faculty meeting, Matory alleged that critics of Israel like him “tremble in fear” when they express their views at Harvard. He submitted a motion to resolve that “this Faculty commits itself to fostering civil dialogue in which people with a broad range of perspectives feel safe and are encouraged to express their reasoned and evidence-based ideas.”

Matory’s motion received support from other paragons of political correctness, who are well-known for their advocacy of censorship of the “offensive” speech of others, but who are now complaining that there’s not enough free speech for them at Harvard.

At Columbia University, on the other hand, a group of professors—who are generally in sync with their extremist colleagues at Harvard—are complaining that Columbia’s President, Lee C. Bollinger, has too much freedom of speech when it comes to the Middle East. A campaign is underway to rebuke Bollinger for expressing his personal views about the Iranian dictator, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Led by well-known radicals such as Eric Foner—who complained that Bollinger’s harsh description of Ahmadinejad was “completely inaccurate”—these politically correct censors want to muzzle Bollinger. They also want to muzzle students, alumni, and other “outsiders,” who have legitimate complaints about the Middle East Studies Department, which has become a wholly owned subsidiary of radical Islam.

It all seems so inconsistent unless you understand what the real agenda is, and then everything becomes completely clear and totally consistent. The agenda is Israel. If you’re against Israel—as Matory, Foner, and their ilk are—then they want you to have complete freedom to speak against the Jewish state (as they certainly should and do). If, on the other hand, you’re perceived as pro-Israel (or pro-American, for that matter), then suddenly you have no right to free speech. It is so transparently cynical that I’m amazed that any reasonable person actually falls for it.

The hypocrisy is rather easy to spot if you’ve been around long enough to remember when it was leaders of the radical left, led by MIT linguist Noam Chomsky, who were trying to intrude on the tenure process for political reasons. I recall vividly when Chomsky campaigned to prevent Columbia from granting a tenured position to Henry Kissinger. Chomsky spoke at a noisy rally against Kissinger’s tenure. It was that same Chomsky who complained when I wrote a letter—in response to a request from the former chairman of the political science department—detailing misquotations, made-up facts, and other scholarly sins by anti-Israel extremist Norman Finkelstein and urging DePaul University to deny him tenure. I also remember when it was Professor Matory who tried to prevent former University President Lawrence H. Summers from exercising his freedom of speech with regard to Israel when he was president.

What I don’t remember (because it didn’t happen) are any complaints by these born-again freedom of speech phonies when Summers, as a mere professor, was prevented from making a speech to the University of California Board of Regents this September. Those political-correctniks who weren’t actually demanding censorship of Summers were predictably silent because it wasn’t one of theirs who was being censored. Nor do I remember (because it didn’t happen) the hard left at Columbia protesting when the University provost defended an anti-Israel professor who was caught by a camera throwing a rock at an Israeli guardhouse. Nor do I remember (because it didn’t happen) Professor Matory complaining when Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak was prevented from speaking at Concordia University by a hard-left anti-Israel crowd of violent censors. For that matter, where was Columbia’s Eric Foner when the leader of the Minutemen was chased off the stage at Columbia by another group of freedom-suppressing hooligans?

I challenge Matory and his political cronies to show a history of supporting the free speech rights of those they disagree with. Has Matory defended the right of Professor James D. Watson, whose despicable theories of racial inferiority resulted in the cancellation of his speech at Rockefeller University? I, and many other genuine civil libertarians, have long histories of defending the free speech rights of those we most despise. I supported the right of Nazis to march in Skokie, Ill forty years ago. I opposed the cancellation of a speech by Tom Paulin, who advocated the murder of Israelis. I defended, pro bono, a virulently anti-Israel Stanford professor who was fired for inciting violence. I opposed Harvard’s attempt to prevent students from flying the Palestinian flag to commemorate the death of mass-murderer Yasser Arafat.

Don’t expect the defense of those with whom they disagree from the Israel-bashers at Columbia, Harvard, and MIT. For them, it is “free speech for me, but not for thee!”

Freedom of speech to criticize Israel and the U.S. is alive and well at Harvard and most other universities. Matory need not “tremble in fear” of anything except his pernicious opinions being rebutted in the marketplace of ideas.

Alan M. Dershowitz is the Frankfurter Professor of Law.

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