We have been discussing controversies over social media postings by students and faculty. The latest controversy at Duke University shows again the dangers to free speech in barring groups over such postings. A chapter of Students Supporting Israel (SSI) was approved for Duke but that approval was then rescinded by Duke Student President Chistina Wang over an Instagram response by SSI to a critic. The SSI posting was a measured and civil response to the highly critical tweet from the student. The concern is that the incident was used as a pretext for claiming a viewpoint neutral basis for barring a pro-Israel group.
On Nov. 10, the Duke Student Government Senate approved the SSI. Yet, when the legislation was submitted to Wang, she vetoed it. Ordinarily, we do not address student disagreements on campuses. However, Duke allows the students to control what groups are recognized. That is a major responsibility and plays a critical role in the viewpoint diversity on campus.
The approval of SSI was opposed by activists like a student named Yana, who declared on Twitter that the chapter meant that “My school promotes settler colonialism.”
The Duke Chronicle reported that Wang justified her actions on the basis of a single social media posting responding to “Yana and others” calling the SSI a group “promoting settler colonialism.”
Wang declared that the SSI “singled out an individual student on their organization’s social media account in a way that was unacceptable for any student group and appeared antithetical to the group’s stated mission to be welcoming and inclusive to all Duke students, and educational in mission and purpose.”
However, the posting was neither uncivil nor inappropriate in tenor or content. The group simply said “To Yana and others like her, please allow us to educate you on what ‘settler colonialism’ actually is and why Israel does not fall under this category whatsoever. These types of false narratives are what we strive to combat and condemn.”
Notably, the SSI initially apologized but later retracted that apology.
Later, following the veto, the group issued another Instagram post stating “To remove our group from campus conversation in order to protect a public anti-Semitic statement by a student is to side with that of the oppressor, limit free speech, and excuse antisemitism to persist at Duke University.”
Frankly, I prefer the first statement to the second statement (that unnecessarily calls the student an anti-Semite).
The whole point of allowing such groups is to foster passionate debate. Israeli and Palestinian issues raise important religious and human rights questions that students should discuss through such groups. While I would prefer that the groups refrain from name calling, these are viewpoints that reflect our mission in higher education as a forum for free thought and expression.
I fail to see the basis for barring the group due its Instagram invitation to Yani and others to discuss the issue. Yani and others wanted to engage the group in a public debate. The group responded publicly to the criticism. It is inevitable that these debates quickly adopt insulting characterizations of others as “colonialists” or “antisemites.” I prefer debates that do not seek to label opponents in this way but it is an unfortunate part of passionate advocacy. People often resort to insults or labeling to attack individuals rather than their viewpoints. Nevertheless, colleges have always been forums for intense and heartfelt debates. Few issues rouse as much passion as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Wang was wrong on her veto and universities need to have rules to protect against viewpoint discrimination in the use of such powers.