Economics professor John Strauss from the University of Southern California is teaching remotely for the rest of the term in a controversy that has serious free speech implications. Strauss was made the subject of a protest after confronting protesters on campus and calling for all Hamas terrorists to be killed. A deceptively edited videotape was posted that made it sound like Strauss was calling for all Palestinians to be killed. The move is part of a disturbing trend limiting free speech on campuses.
The controversy began on Nov. 9th during a pro-Palestinian protest on the USC campus and Strauss walked by near the Tommy Trojan statue on campus. He had words with the protesters and, in the course of their exchange, Strauss said that he walked toward the students and inadvertently stepped on flyers showing Palestinians killed in Gaza. The students said it was intentional.
When Strauss had a second encounter with the protesters, one student yelled “Shame on you, Professor Strauss. Shame on you.” In response, he yelled “No, shame on you. You people are ignorant. Really ignorant. Hamas are murderers. That’s all they are. Every one should be killed, and I hope they all are.”
That videotape was then edited and a viral video showed Strauss saying, “Every one should be killed, and I hope they all are.” The posters removed the reference to Hamas.
Both students and faculty proceeded to file complaints with the university, including claims of students that they felt unsafe and threatened by Professor Strauss being on campus.
The next day, USC issued a statement that it was aware of the video on social media and was investigating the matter. Strauss says that he also received a call from the associate dean of the college informing him that he was put on paid administrative leave for the rest of the semester. He would only be allowed to teach his graduate class remotely, but reportedly would be barred from his undergraduate class. USC later said that he could teach both classes, but only remotely.
He is now facing the inevitable cancel campaign with the signature petition demanding his firing for “racist and xenophobic behavior.” It has garnered thousands of signatures. The petition repeats the misleading edited version in stating that Strauss yelled “everyone should be killed, and I hope they all are” and that the words were “not only offensive but also promote and incite violence.”
FIRE has written a letter to USC, calling for his full reinstatement and continues to advocate on his behalf. The Academic Freedom Alliance, a coalition of college and university faculty focused on protecting freedom of expression, has also issued a letter to USC Provost Andrew Guzman on behalf of Strauss.
The video shows Strauss responded to the protesters as he walked by. It was clearly protected speech and should not have generated the university order. I have opposed efforts on both sides to ban or blacklist protesters or groups over the war in Gaza. While universities do need to respond to the destruction of flyers (including by faculty) and threats to students or faculty, this incident does not suggest a credible case of threats.It is hard to establish intent when flyers on the ground are walked upon by third parties. We have discussed prior misunderstandings over flyers. However, disciplinary action should not be based on such uncertain facts, particularly after a clearly misleading campaign using a highly edited videotape. Professor Strauss denies that he stepped on the flyers on purpose and his comments concerned Hamas. I have previously written that Hamas is legally, factually, and morally a terrorist organization. Hoping that a terrorist organization is destroyed after a massacre is not the same as wishing to kill all Palestinians.
The involvement of faculty in joining this effort is disappointing, but unfortunately, not surprising. Faculty members have long joined such cancel campaigns against conservative, libertarian, and dissenting faculty. It is part of what I have described as the most successful anti-free speech movement in history.
In my view, USC has abandoned its duties to both Professor Strauss and free speech in taking these actions. The treatment of Strauss as a possible threat to students is unsupported and insulting on these facts. Absent new evidence, Professor Strauss should be restored fully to his status, including teaching on campus.
Professor Strauss is a respected and accomplished academic who was Editor-in-Chief of the scientific journal, Economic Development and Cultural Change. He has worked throughout the world on economic development.