The Bar-On Brief: Free speech rights must extend to all groups, not just agreeable ones

The Bar-On Brief: Free speech rights must extend to all groups, not just agreeable ones

 

This past weekend, USC’s crosstown rival UCLA hosted a national conference for the Students for Justice in Palestine. Established in 2010, the organization advocates for the rights of Palestinians living in Israel, with over 200 chapters on college campuses in the United States.

When the conference was announced in August, objections were made. Especially in the weeks leading up to the event, with the horrific anti-Semitic shooting in Pittsburgh, calls to shut it down increased. However, calling for the suppression of Palestinian voices is wrong because of one simple reason: free speech.

This column is not an endorsement of SJP’s message. As an Israeli-born American citizen, I condemn SJP for skewing facts about how my home country handles policy toward Palestinians. I condemn their refusal to acknowledge the terrorist acts Palestinians in Gaza engage in, especially when Hamas fired over 400 rockets in less than a day at Israeli citizens last week.

But I cannot take away this group’s right to speak simply because I disagree with its message or distortion of information. USC professor Dan Schnur put it best at a talk he gave last week: “You don’t have to love what the First Amendment empowers to love the First Amendment.”

So long as the SJP message is within the bounds of the law, I cannot advocate for the suppression of their speech.

Here’s what I can do — diminish this speech’s value. When I was in high school, I listened to a talk by Holocaust survivor Ben Stern. In 1978, American neo-Nazis planned a march in Skokie, Illinois, the American city with the most Jews per capita at the time. Then, Stern decided he would not let their voices go uncontested. Because the government could not suppress the neo-Nazi march (the American Civil Liberties Union defended the neo-Nazi group’s right to march), Stern gathered signatures, wrote articles for the Chicago Tribune and brought attention to the hate march by coordinating a counter-protest. Despite countless threats to Stern and his family, he persisted. And thanks to Stern’s efforts, the neo-Nazis canceled the march of their own volition.

I’m here to advocate against SJP’s message, fight the group’s positions on their merits, debate its leaders and defeat it intellectually and factually. I believe that preventing the organization from meeting is an act of cowardice; I am not afraid of them meeting, so long as I can challenge their positions.

But, I want to ask SJP to extend the same courtesy to me when I want to host events contrary to their interests. When I want to hear from a speaker who may offend their members’ views, I ask them not to advocate for that speaker to be silenced.

Historically, SJP members haven’t extended their challengers that courtesy. They interrupted the speeches of a former Israeli Prime Minister at the University of Chicago in 2009, an Israeli ambassador at UC Irvine in 2010, a Jewish philosophy professor at University of Minnesota Twin Cities in 2015, the mayor of Jerusalem at San Francisco State University in 2016 and an Israeli soldier in Australia in 2015.

SJP has disrupted two pro-Israel events at UC Irvine this year and they have reportedly spit on and physically assaulted students at Stanford, Loyola University Chicago and Cornell in previous incidents. This is far from civil discourse.

Despite this group’s notorious history, I stand for its right to host an uninterrupted event and will condemn anyone who stops them from hosting the event.

I hope SJP remembers this column and appreciates the fact that some Americans object to their opinions but welcome their speech — despite their wholehearted disagreement and the organization’s history of neglecting its adversaries’ free speech rights. I hope SJP knows that there are some people out there who abide by Voltaire’s mantra, “I disapprove of what you say, but will fight to death for your right to say it.”

Most importantly, I expect SJP to treat adversaries with the same respect and appreciate opponents’ rights just the same.

Shauli Bar-On is a sophomore majoring in political science. His column, “The Bar-On Brief,” ran every other Tuesday.

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