There is a fine line between protecting students from a threatening environment and restricting free speech. And as some pro-Israel and pro-Palestine students continue to clash at UC Berkeley, the campus faces an opportunity to productively address that dilemma.
Recently, the campus administration announced a set of proposed policy changes pursuant to the settlement of a lawsuit which alleged that UC Berkeley and the UC system failed to curb a climate hostile to Jewish students. The lawsuit took specific issue with Israeli Apartheid Week, an annual demonstration intended to draw attention to alleged human rights violations in Israel. The changes — which the settlement only requires the campus to consider — aim to clarify policies regarding the use of firearms and obstruction of pathways.
One specific policy alteration would allow students to use imitation firearms — which have been present at Apartheid Week before — in demonstrations only if “it would be obvious to a reasonable observer” that the weapons are fake and if they were approved beforehand by UCPD. If implemented, this rule would place a heavy amount of subjective authority on the campus police, who could unnecessarily censor legitimate protest.
Overall, the proposed changes are very reactionary — to address this important issue of campus climate, administrators and student leaders must do more than making bureaucratic changes. Additionally, Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard said the clarifications “merely put in writing existing practices,” and Tom Pessah, a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, indicated that the group already follows those rules. If those claims are true, then the policies would likely do little to affect the way demonstrations during Apartheid Week and at other times are conducted on campus.
In any case, these changes do not give the impression that the campus is addressing the larger issue of whether UC Berkeley has a significant campus climate problem. Pro-Israel and pro-Palestine student groups have a storied history of contention that is extremely divisive. This tension became apparent during previous Apartheid Week protests, when students on both sides clashed on Sproul Plaza. There is an apparent lack of constructive dialogue between these groups that must be mended.
But any effort to alleviate a problematic campus climate cannot come at the cost of squelching free speech. In response to a complaint from the same students who sued the university, the U.S. Department of Education’s civil rights office recently confirmed that it is investigating allegations of an anti-Semitic climate on campus. While such concerns should be taken seriously, the department must be very sensitive to students’ rights to free expression.
In the end, more dialogue is better than narrow policy changes when it comes to campus climate. While the Israel-Palestine dispute is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon, we have a unique opportunity as members of the UC Berkeley community to engage in some of the most insightful conversations about this conflict. Peaceful, productive conversations should prevail over protests that divide the student body.