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Anti-Israel speech should be protected, not banned, on American campuses

An Israel-based legal group has sent a letter to 100 university and college presidents asking them to crack down on anti-Israel abuse. Fair enough, except that anti-Israel speech – anger directed at a government – is protected by the First Amendment.

By Justin D. Martin / September 19, 2011

Orono, Maine

An Israeli legal group sent more than 100 US college and university presidents a letter this month, warning them to crack down on anti-Semitism and terrorist activities.

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Seems reasonable enough. But the letter, drafted by the Israel Law Center, contains suggestions that come perilously close to stunting First Amendment protections for unpopular speech.

“[A]lthough academic and political freedom in the United States is a cherished right, there are limits to these rights that students and campus officials must be made aware, especially with regard to anti-Israel activities,” the letter from the Israel-based legal group said. “[A] Jewish student should feel safe enough to publicly wear his yarmulke across campus and not fear verbal or physical anti-Israel abuse.”

Threats of physical violence are not to be tolerated, and against these wrongs US courts stand unequivocally.

But let this also be clear: Anti-Israel speech is protected by the full force of the First Amendment. Vehemently. And such speech is permissible on American college and university campuses.

US law has long defended Americans’ right to criticize governments, and even to spread seditious libel, that is, defamatory speech about governments.

Anti-government speech cannot be conveniently labeled “harassment” or “abuse” whenever detractors would like it to stop. Anarchists may hold an anti-US government demonstration on, say, the University of Virginia campus and, perhaps with the appropriate permit, burn American flags. Such a protest cannot, however, be branded harassment by the Daughters of the American Revolution for the purposes of abridging any offensive speech.

The US Supreme Court decided in March in Snyder v. Phelps that members of the Westboro Baptist Church, who protest near funerals of US soldiers and shout the vilest slurs, could not be sued for intentional infliction of emotional distress, despite the foulness of their campaign. The Supreme Court ruling was not close; justices voted 8-1 in favor of the Westboro rabble-rousers.

If the First Amendment protects such hateful speech, it very obviously protects acerbic speech about Israel, and even about Jews or other minority groups. British fashionisto John Galliano was convicted in a French court this month and fined over $8,000 for anti-Semitic slurs he mumbled while swaying atop a Parisian bar stool, but such punishment of speech in the US is unthinkable.


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