Censorship and Cartoons at a Palestinian University

Inside Higher Ed has a fascinating article about calls for censorship at a Palestinian university because a professor put up political cartoons on his office door, the most offensive of which, apparently, depicts “Islamic Superman” with a beard.

President Khalil Hindi of Birzeit University responds to the criticism of his administration’s failure to defend academic freedom. Hindi asks three very good questions that certainly deserve an answer:

“1) Where and how to draw the balance between academic freedom and general freedom of expression (including protest by students)?”

There is no such thing as a “balance” between academic freedom and freedom of expression. Protest is perfectly legitimate until it reaches the form of threats. When people seek censorship, they are perfectly free to say so, but a university must respond by protecting academic freedom, not by sending out three vice presidents to demand apologies and the removal of free speech.

“2) What are the limits of academic freedom (every freedom has limits)? Do they extend beyond teaching, research and publications (do they, for example, extend to ostentatious display of provocative posters in public space?)?”

The limits of academic freedom are twofold: one, if you fail to do your academic work, you cannot claim academic freedom. Second, if you violate the rights of others, you cannot claim academic freedom in those actions. Neither limit has been violated by Professor Musa Budeiri. As for the question of whether academic freedom includes the “ostentatious display of provocative posters in public space,” the answer is, absolutely yes. Hindi’s response is reminiscent of David Horowitz, who argued that political cartoons should be banned from faculty office doors because they might offend conservatives.

“3) How to manage the evident rift in Palestinian society without curtailing freedoms?”

There’s a very simple answer: you manage a rift with more freedom. Whenever there is a dispute within a society, you expose it to public debate and discussion, rather than silencing one wing because another faction demands censorship.

The situation at Birzeit is a good example of why we need tenure. Professor Budeiri has taught for 19 years, but the university thinks that it can simply deny him a contract to teach because he has offended obviously insane idiots.

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