Temple University professor and CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill caused a stir after he spoke before the United Nations and made pro-Palestinian statements that critics claimed were thinly veiled calls for the elimination of Israel. CNN promptly fired Hill and many at Temple University demanded that the media studies professor also be fired. Temple correctly stood firm on the free speech rights of faculty to speak out on such important but controversial issues. While disassociating itself from the merits of the commentary, the university stated that “we acknowledge that he has a constitutionally protected right to express his opinion as a private citizen.”
We have been discussing the often inconsistent approach taken to controversial statements or postings of students and faculty at our universities and colleges, including here and here and here. I have previously written about concerns that public employees are increasingly being disciplined for actions in their private lives or views or associations outside of work. We have previously seen teachers (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here) students (here, here and here) and other public employees (here and here and here) fired for their private speech or conduct, including school employees fired for posing in magazines (here), appearing on television shows in bikinis (here), or having a prior career in the adult entertainment industry (here). This includes Halloween costume controversies.
In this case, Hill spoke at a meeting of the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People in observance of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. He called the Israeli government of “normalizing settler colonialism” and called for a “free Palestine from the river to the sea.” That last remark was denounced as a type of dog whistle for the elimination of the States of Israel. He also at one point poured himself from water and explained that he just got off a plane to Palestine and that “I was boycotting the Israeli water so I was unable to quench my thirst.” He also said somewhat cryptically “We must prioritize peace, but we must not romanticize or fetishize it.”
He later defended his remarks by insisting that “In my speech, I talked about the need to return to the pre-1967 borders, to give full rights to Palestinian citizens of Israel, and to allow right of return. No part of this is a call to destroy Israel. It’s absurd on its face.”
Not so for CNN which promptly fired him.
Temple refused calls to do so. That is the correct decision. This is not about the merits of Hill’s statements — any more than it is about the merits of the criticism of those remarks. Hill was exercising his free speech rights outside of his employment with Temple. Regardless of how one may feel about his views, academics are allowed to hold opposing views on Israel. If not, what is the standard to be applied to academics in the exercise of free speech?
Here is his speech that caused the turmoil: