Alan Dershowitz: Does Brooklyn College Pass the 'Shoe on the Other Foot' Test?

Friday, 01 Feb 2013 04:43 PM

By Alan M. Dershowitz

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The decision by the Brooklyn College Political Science Department to endorse the BDS movement—which includes the boycotting of Jewish-Israeli academics—has been “justified” on freedom of speech and academic freedom grounds by the chairman of the department. Brooklyn College’s president has said that departments have the right to sponsor one-sided partisan events. Let’s see if these “justifications” pass the “shoe-on-the-other-foot” test. 

What would these administrators say if the philosophy department were to officially endorse the right to life and oppose a woman’s right to choose abortion? What if the economics department had officially endorsed Mitt Romney during last year’s election? What if the Spanish department had voted to endorse an academic boycott against Cuban or Venezuelan professors? What if the department of religion were to officially condemn homosexuality?

I can assure you that both the lyrics and the music would be very different. The chairman of the political science department, a radical leftist, would be complaining that his academic freedom was being denied by these departments officially endorsing positions with which he disagrees. The president of the college, known for her feminist views, would not likely remain silent in the face of an official departmental endorsement of the right to life. Nor would many faculty members justify a departmental condemnation of homosexuality on the grounds of academic freedom or freedom of speech.

So these invocations of free speech and academic freedoms are merely a smokescreen to cover the hypocrisy of those who claim that they are committed to open dialogue and the expression of all points of view. That is so much hooey. Of course, the event should go forward, but it should be sponsored by students and outside groups, not by a department of the college. The same should be true of pro-Israel events.

The very same professors who demand the right to advocate BDS against Israel would demand the right to suppress the free speech and academic freedom of those who support Israeli settlements and the denial of statehoods to the Palestinians. "Free speech for me but not for thee" has always been the hallmark of extremists on both the left and right. These extremists believe they know the truth — and there is no reason for supporting, endorsing or even tolerating opposing viewpoints.

They cannot be trusted to grade students neutrally and without bias. I know that if I were a student at Brooklyn College today, I would not major in political science for fear that my support for Israel and my opposition to BDS might prejudice me in the eyes of professors whose department has officially endorsed BDS, thus discriminating against my point of view in the marketplace of ideas. How could I be sure they wouldn’t discriminate against my point of view in grading or recommending students? This is the real issue in the hullabaloo over the decision by the Brooklyn College Political Science Department to co-sponsor and endorse the BDS campaign at Brooklyn College.

Nor is this only a hypothetical or abstract fear. One political science student at Brooklyn College said she was afraid to criticize her department because “that’s going to put a target on my back.” Other students talked about a “chilling effect” that the department’s decision would have on them. And yet another student said she had an “uncomfortable feeling” about raising her hand and arguing “with a professor who voted for it” and who tried to justify his vote in the classroom.

The president of Brooklyn College says she believes departments have the right to take controversial positions and to sponsor and endorse controversial events. Where is the line to be drawn? Would the Brooklyn College Political Science Department have the right to offer a course entitled “Why BDS Against Israel is a Good Thing”? Would the faculty have the right to grade students based on whether their exams agree or disagree with the department’s official party line on BDS? Would the department have the right to deny the request of a faculty member to teach a course on why BDS against Israel is a bad thing?

Surely the answer to these questions is no, and even the chairman of the political science department at Brooklyn College would probably agree. But his department has endorsed BDS against Israel, and it would not co-sponsor or endorse an equivalent speech on the other side of the issue: namely, by a radical, pro-settlement, anti-Palestinian statehood zealot. I doubt his department would co-sponsor and endorse a speech by a moderate pro-Israel advocate who favored the two-state solution and opposed settlement-building. That issue is being tested because Brooklyn College Hillel is asking the political science department to “co-sponsor” and “endorse” an anti-BDS talk by me. The shoe is now on the other foot! And it is causing painful blisters.

There are only two reasonable approaches to what departments should be entitled to do:  Either they should sponsor and endorse events on all sides of controversial issues, or they should get out of the business of selectively sponsoring and endorsing only one side of such issues. The approach taken by the political science department at Brooklyn College is absolutely unacceptable: Namely, to endorse and sponsor only one side of a controversial issue while refusing to co-sponsor and endorse the other side of the issue.

The president of Brooklyn College is wrong when she says that departments should have the right to selectively sponsor and endorse only one side of a controversy. That is a long step on the road to turning academic departments into biased, partisan, and one-sided propaganda centers, reminiscent of “political science” departments in the former Soviet Union that “encouraged” their students to follow the official party line.


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