I am writing to express my disagreement with several points made by my peer, Mukund Rathi, in his op-ed: “Erwin Chemerinsky should address Palestine exception to free speech.”
First, I question Rathi’s assertion that Erwin Chemerinsky, the new dean of Berkeley Law, is “inattentive to the Palestine exception to free speech.” The Boalt Hall Law Students for Justice in Palestine, or LSJP, regularly utilizes the same free speech rights that Rathi purports do not apply to them.
For example, LSJP handed out flyers to protest every one of the speakers that the Boalt Jewish Student Association, or BJSA, has brought to campus over the last two semesters, wrote an open letter to criticize the school’s decision to allow conservative pundit Ben Shapiro to speak on campus based purely on his views on the Middle East, and launched a campaign against the BJSA’s iTrek trip to Israel last year (which included letters, Facebook posts, tabling in the law school cafe, and a photo campaign of whiteboard pledges to not attend the trip). Just this week, LSJP members handed out flyers and were specifically given first priority to ask professor Alan Dershowitz questions during his talk at Berkeley Law.
I support LSJP’s use of free speech to point out viewpoints that they oppose; while I may hold a different perspective, I appreciate attending a school where all opinions can be shared. If there are specific instances during Rathi’s time at Berkeley Law — especially with Chemerinsky at the helm — when Palestinian speakers were exempted from free speech, I would like to know. I too feel that would be unacceptable.
Second, Rathi’s mention of Steven Salaita as an example of stifled Palestinian speech is inaccurate. Salaita’s offer from the University of Illinois was withdrawn not because of “critical tweets” about Israel during Operation Protective Edge in 2014, but rather for tweets that many viewed as anti-Semitic. For example, one tweet read: “If (Benjamin) Netanyahu appeared on TV with a necklace made from the teeth of Palestinian children, would anybody be surprised?”
At first glance this statement about Netanyahu might seem purely political, but it in fact trades in historic anti-Semitic tropes. The European Parliament Working Group on anti-Semitism includes in its definition of anti-Semitism: “using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.” Dating back to the Middle Ages, people falsely insinuated that Jews murder children to use their blood for ritual purposes. Salaita was not “punished” for anti-racist speech but rather denied tenure because of anti-Semitic tweets referencing that libel. Rathi concludes that “anti-racists need to develop and assert a fuller vision of the right to free speech.” Yet I would hope that anti-racists also commend a university’s decision not to hire someone who has made anti-Semitic remarks.
All perspectives can and should be allowed on campus. There is no evidence that Chemerinsky’s vision of free speech excludes the Palestinian view. I feel confident that if a student group invited an anti-Israel speaker to Berkeley Law, Dean Chemerinsky would ensure his or her right to speak.
Olivia Wittels is a law student at Berkeley Law.