The Cost of Free Speech: On Wellesley, Palestine, and Student Journalist Solidarity

Our democracy cannot survive without free speech and the free press. The events of last spring and this past month show us, vividly, that we cannot have either without the unequivocal protection of speakers. The pursuit of the truth through journalism is the sole, brilliant north star of this Editorial Board. And, come what may, we stand unwavering, uncowed, and unbroken in support of it — in Cambridge, in Wellesley, in Palestine, and everywhere.
By The Crimson Editorial Board

Billings Hall is located in Wellesley College.
Billings Hall is located in Wellesley College. By Courtesy of Daderot / Wikimedia Commons

Threats to journalistic independence, doxxing, and controversial interferences from university presidents: A familiar storm is brewing at Wellesley College.

Earlier this term, the Wellesley News Editorial Board released an editorial calling for “the liberation of Palestine” and endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. In doing so, our peers at Wellesley made praising reference to the “Mapping Project,” a controversial initiative spearheaded by Boston-area activists that digitally maps organizations with alleged ties to the occupation of Palestine and a variety of social ills.

The reaction was swift. Within days, Wellesley College President and Harvard alumna Paula A. Johnson ’80 had released an email on the matter bearing the subject line “Condemning Antisemitism.” After curtly noting Wellesley’s appreciation of the free press and her general policy against commenting on student editorials, Johnson stated that she did “feel the need to make it clear” that the college rejected the Mapping Project for promoting antisemitism.

Five days later, amid an eerily familiar wave of backlash featuring online harassment and social media doxxing of editorial members, the Wellesley News issued a clarification on its editorial. In this statement, the Editorial Board reaffirmed its opposition to antisemitism and antisemitic uses of the Mapping Project in particular, while explaining that the board had never intended to endorse the project in the first place.

Right-wing outlets gleefully celebrated Johnson’s “administrative smackdown,” publicizing the names and images of the involved editors even after the organization removed the editorial masthead from their website to reduce exposure. Some 60 sympathetic students and faculty, incensed by what they saw as a tacit encouragement of the harassment, staged a protest march toward Johnson’s house.

We don’t stand for or support the Mapping Project — neither, for that matter, does the unaffiliated Palestinian BDS National Committee. As student journalists, however, we firmly support the editors of the Wellesley News Editorial Board.


Let us address the elephant in the room: The Mapping Project is, at best, a clumsy, deeply inappropriate tool. At its worst, it has hugely dangerous potential, quite literally providing a map for those with ill or even violent intent to the front door of Jewish organizations across Massachusetts. The project strikes us as intellectually lazy and egregiously over-simplistic on Palestine and beyond, discarding opinion pieces critical of Russia as “US imperialist propaganda” while castigating entire Jewish social organizations regardless of their willingness to criticize the Israeli government.

That isn’t just bad reasoning — it’s awful advocacy, too.

We regard the Mapping Project, regardless of its intent, as antisemitic in effect and counterproductive to the efforts of Palestinian advocates, despite the theoretical utility of inspecting the links between American institutions and a variety of oppressive governments (Israel is hardly the only country with a dubious human rights track record and domestic supporters). The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is fraught; scars are easy to inflame. Historical antisemitism has implications for how we should discuss issues that get easily conflated with Judaism as a whole. That does not mean that we should avoid such debates, nor that we should spare any warranted criticism — as an Editorial Board, we have hardly done so ourselves. But engaging with this discussion does demand a high level of care, lest it amplify dangerous tropes, proving detrimental to the Palestinian cause.

The Mapping Project failed to clear such a bar — for that, we unambiguously denounce it.

Still, we are skeptical that the backlash at Wellesley is exclusively tied to the Mapping Project itself, and not to the students’ broader pro-Palestinian views on the delicate geopolitical conflicts of the region.

Our reasoning here is twofold. First, the editorial’s clumsy support for the Mapping Project was a short aside in a much longer piece focused on the wider BDS movement and its manifestations on Wellesley’s campus. Second, and more pressingly: We doubt that the barrage of hatred directed at Wellesley's editors is solely linked to the Mapping Project because we faced similar backlash ourselves — well before the project even existed.


In the weeks following the publication of our own sharply controversial pro-Palestine editorial, our board received hundreds of outraged, often vile, reactions. Some taunted our members with antisemitic slurs, comparing them to Schutzstaffel guards; others undermined Jewish editors’ identities, like the deputy mayor of Jerusalem who called one of our then-editors the “Jewish equivalent of the Uncle Tom” in a since-deleted tweet. Our entire board was abused via Instagram, where personal profiles were publicized to instigate harassment upon individuals; our leadership’s faces and full names still show up under widely-followed Twitter accounts with smearing descriptions. The very professors who hold substantial sway over our futures signed scorching open letters against us, and a certain former University president and U.S. secretary of the treasury did too, accusing us of “moral bankruptcy” and seeking to erode our editorial autonomy by calling on his hundreds of thousands of followers to boycott funding of our publication, which is financially independent from the uber-wealthy University we cover.

The hostile campaign wasn’t exactly enjoyable. Unlike Wellesley, we never removed our masthead from our site — but we were forced to erase the names of Editorial editors who simply did not want to continue their affiliation at such high risk of harassment. Indeed, that risk led our University’s administration, unprompted, to feel compelled to tighten our newspaper’s security through the University police department in the immediate aftermath of the editorial’s publication — a sickening, jarring development.

That adds a layer of twisted irony to the ongoing debacle. For the same reason that the Mapping Project is wrong, so is the backlash Wellesley News has faced: Both are vile, vitriolic intimidation laced with threats. We categorically reject any form of threats as a valid form of debate; we refuse to be strong-armed into silence. No one should harbor any doubt that journalism’s mission, student journalism’s mission, and The Crimson’s mission, is to relentlessly chase the truth and to guarantee the right to an opinion for all — even when the opinion is controversial; perhaps especially then.


To be clear, criticism is an essential exercise of free speech; the right to differ on questions of deep, fundamental importance belongs to the holders of dissentious views and their critics alike. But harassment is not commonplace criticism. To treat it as such entirely disregards foundational assumptions of safety and mutual respect without which we can have neither open discourse nor democracy. Speech can never be truly free if speakers face real fear of violent retribution. The press cannot be free if it writes before the barrel of a gun.

Freedom of the press, editorial independence, and the protection of dissenters are bedrock democratic principles that cannot be compromised — no matter how virulently the powerful or the public may disagree. In a democracy, the role of journalism is to examine everything — even things regarded as incontrovertible truths. Such a duty, and the protections that attach to it, must include opinion journalism, too.

Much as we strenuously disagree with the Mapping Project, we do not believe that our peer editors’ careless reference to it warranted the ensuing fallout. That Wellesley News acknowledged and clarified the mistake surely attests that it was operating in good faith. As such, and as fellow student journalists, they deserve grace.

When it comes to controversies involving the perspectives of student journalism, university administrators have an essential role to play. In our view, for a university president, the safety of students is an absolute, non-negotiable line in the sand. When considering whether to publicly condemn student journalists under real and material threat, that principle must triumph over other concerns.

We acknowledge that the calculus may not always be so clear-cut. Particularly when there is risk of harm to more than one party — for example, student populations on campus made to feel unsafe by the reference to a dangerous tool — balancing competing interests is difficult. But administrators’ official condemnation of a stance taken in a student editorial must come only, if ever, as a last resort. Whenever administrators do reach the decision to speak out, they must explicitly and unequivocally affirm the independence of the student press and their right to free speech while also considering the precarious well-being of student journalists.

To this extent, we reaffirm our appreciation for Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow’s careful actions this past Spring. Back then, Bacow officially commented on our own controversy only when prompted by direct, face-to-face questioning during a meeting despite presumably immense pressure; omitted mention of the Board from the title of the public statement about said comment; and emphasized his support for our editorial independence first and foremost.

We do not expect presidents to remain silent on issues of great import — quite the opposite, really. President Bacow said specifically that Harvard would never boycott a state, but that view came only at the end of a comment broadly centering support for freedom of the press. In this respect, he is a model for how university administrators should approach controversies involving the harassment of student journalists, and we thank him for it. President Johnson, who opted for an official school-wide email with a reductive reading of the editorial’s message, unnecessarily amplified the scrutiny and harassment on Wellesley student journalists — and thus falls short of what we expect from our university leadership.

Our democracy cannot survive without free speech and the free press. The events of last spring and this past month show us, vividly, that we cannot have either without the unequivocal protection of speakers. The pursuit of the truth through journalism is the sole, brilliant north star of this Board. And, come what may, we stand unwavering, uncowed, and unbroken in support of it — in Cambridge, in Wellesley, in Palestine, and everywhere.

This staff editorial solely represents the majority view of The Crimson Editorial Board. It is the product of discussions at regular Editorial Board meetings. In order to ensure the impartiality of our journalism, Crimson editors who choose to opine and vote at these meetings are not involved in the reporting of articles on similar topics.

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