What happens when a university lets a select group decide what constitutes “hate speech” for an entire campus? The answer at San Francisco State University is censorship of any opinions the group doesn’t like. This example is instructive for the larger societal debate on hate speech.
A recent op-ed in the San Francisco Examiner discussed the reprehensible and hateful targeting of individual students and faculty activists on campus. But they have ignored a larger story: how the victims of this campaign now use the narrative of “hate speech” as a weapon to marginalize and censor those with whom they disagree.
The context at SFSU used to be Israel-Palestine politics, which has a long and challenging history on campus. But over the last few years, the university allowed the “hate speech” narrative to run amok. Without any moral leadership or serious educational efforts, SFSU’s discourse has degenerated into what many see as an illegal ideological litmus test for participation in university activities, based on a student’s viewpoint, nationality and religion.
As just one example: In February, a group of faculty, staff and students intentionally excluded Hillel, the Jewish student group on campus, from SFSU’s “Know Your Rights” fair, as the university’s own investigation concluded. This social justice fair, created to discuss — ironically — how different minorities were being marginalized in the new domestic political climate, had nothing to do with Middle East politics. Hillel had offered the organizers resources to immigration, LBGTQIA and social justice organizations.
Why were Jewish students excluded as a group from the social justice fair? The organizers (again, university employees and students) employed a crude stereotype, incorrectly assuming that all students who associate with the Jewish campus group shared one viewpoint on Israel. To the contrary, Jewish students should not have to declare, or even hold, opinions on the Middle East to participate in a domestic social justice event.
Several semesters previously, Hillel had complained after the right-leaning Mayor of Jerusalem, Nir Barkat, came to speak on campus and was shouted down by disruptors. (The same year, Hillel had also hosted for students a leading Palestinian advocate of Palestinian statehood and a left-leaning Israeli journalist highly critical of his own government). Those activists’ defense was that Barkat’s mere presence at SFSU was, in their words, “hate speech.” Unlike similar incidents at Middlebury College and UC Irvine, the university never disciplined the individual disruptors or any student groups, even though several groups admitted responsibility. Instead, SFSU actually apologized to the disruptors.
Quite understandably, anti-Israel activists interpreted the SFSU’s refusal to stand up for free speech as a green light to shut down any opinions on campus they didn’t like. If SFSU had no intention of recognizing that a rich diversity of views is the hallmark of its academic mission, why should the activists? Accordingly, the faculty, staff and student organizers of the social justice fair decided they should exclude Jewish students as a group.
This was not an isolated event. Hillel co-sponsored an International Women’s Day event on campus, and student activists pressured speakers to withdraw from participating — again, on an issue that had nothing to do with the Middle East.
The broader concern for society should be clear here. While Jewish expression is being censored here due to SFSU uncritically allowing the reasoning of “hate speech” to run wild, any group whose views are disfavored could be improperly marginalized. In fact, a Palestinian student interviewed in an SFGate article said, “U.S. military members … should [also] be excluded from campus.” Hate speech most often is constitutionally protected. When something is truly hateful, it still deserves condemnation. But when the rationale of hate speech gets used to ban any disliked viewpoint, censorship inevitably follows.
SFSU is doing a disservice to its community and society as a whole by failing to enforce its rules on nondiscrimination and disruption of campus events, to assert leadership and to educate its students about anti-Semitism and the value of tolerance for others with opinions different from their own. If broader society follows SFSU’s lack of moral leadership on this issue, the consequences could be severe.
Oliver E. Benn is the executive director of San Francisco Hillel. Mark G. Yudof is a former president of the University of California and the former chancellor of the University of Texas system.