How to Oppose Anti-Semitism and the Chikindas Case

BY JOHN K. WILSON

Last month, Northwestern law professor Steven Lubet wrote an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune responding in part to my post defending the rights of Rutgers professor Michael Chikindas.

I think Lubet makes two fundamental errors: First, he says anti-Semitic imagery is an act of instigating violence. Second, he argues that administrative actions short of suspending a professor should not be restricted.

Here are Lubet’s comments about my analysis:

The line between administrative measures and punishment may be imprecise, but some observers think it should be abandoned in favor of unrestrained free speech. According to John Wilson, who writes for the Academe Blog of the American Association of University Professors, Chikindas should have faced no consequences at all. In a post titled “In Defense of Michael Chikindas,” Wilson allowed that “Chikindas is an anti-Semite, and an idiot,” but argued that “upsetting people” did not violate any campus rules. “The fact that some students feel uncomfortable about a professor’s views,” said Wilson, “is not a good reason to ban (him) from teaching required courses.”

According to Wilson (and other absolutists), academic freedom means that a professor cannot be sanctioned, or even reassigned, for claiming that “gay men have a propensity to molest children,” or “Muslims are a terrorist threat,” or “blacks are less intelligent than whites on average.” If we allow “personal opinions to be the basis of penalties, almost any controversial professor could be punished.”

This position is most troubling because it trivializes anti-Semitism, and other forms of racism, under the rubric of mere idiocy or “personal opinions.” Although it is tempting to dismiss bigots as fools, the truth is that anti-Jewish imagery is constantly used to inspire attacks on synagogues, schools, community centers, museums and kosher supermarkets. Some academics may not comprehend the power of internet caricatures to instigate violence, but it is well understood by the neo-Nazis, whose “style guide” advises that “There should be a conscious agenda to dehumanize the enemy, to the point where people are ready to laugh at their deaths.”

Chikindas will continue teaching at Rutgers for the foreseeable future, whatever his course and administrative assignments, but that is not the most important issue raised by his case. Faculties can endure a handful of rabid anti-Semites, but their poisonous ideology must still be recognized as truly dangerous, and never discounted as simply “uncomfortable.” Those who encourage anti-Jewish terror are racists, not idiots; and they are motivated by hatred, not personal opinions.

I’m not trivializing anti-Semitism as a mere “personal opinion.” I’m saying that the right to express any personal opinions is threatened if universities can punish anti-Semitic opinions.

Lubet makes a stretch that’s very dangerous to free speech. If hateful ideas or images are “used to inspire attacks” and “instigate violence” (and obviously it is by some bigots), then Lubet is suggesting any hate speech can be punished for inspiring attacks and instigating violence. Lubet is wrong. Consider this example: anti-abortion terrorists believe that abortion doctors are murderers. Does that mean anyone who tweets “abortion is murder” (or holds up signs with such imagery) can be declared to have instigated violence and therefore be banned from administrative appointments or teaching required classes?

It’s true that the use of hateful images and rhetoric can indirectly help create a culture that promotes violence, and we ought to make ethical criticism of people who express certain kinds of hatred. But we must not punish them for their ideas, because of the risk to freedom of speech. if a professor retweets someone who alleged to inspire violence and uses images from neo-Nazis and promotes hatred against minorities (say, President Trump), should they suffer a similar penalty? Is a Trump supporter really radically different from a supporter of anti-Semitic imagery?

According to Lubet, “Academic freedom generally prohibits punishing faculty members for ‘extramural speech,’ but it does not guarantee the right to hold a directorship or to teach any particular classes.” Nobody has a guarantee to hold a directorship or teach particular classes. But academic freedom does mean that a professor cannot have a position or class taken away because of controversial extramural utterances unrelated to their work. The lack of an absolute right does not give carte blanche to politically-motivated punishments.

If you are worried about the rights of staffers and students who must work with a bigot, banning a professor from being director of a project and banning that professor from teaching required classes is an unnecessarily extreme response. It is possible, instead, to allow the professor to continue teaching required classes while creating alternative “shadow” classes taught by other professors. It is also possible to allow staffers offended by the professor to transfer to another position. These are reasonable responses, after a hearing is held, for dealing with the most extreme offensive comments that are proven to indicate serious bigotry by a professor.

Removing professors from projects is a threat to academic freedom, and should not be dismissed as a mere administrative decision. Many “projects” are really just terms used for a professor’s research work. Should administrators have the power to ban any controversial professor from running a program without any hearings or oversight? Banning professors from teaching required classes is an even more serious threat to academic freedom, since it is effectively overturning normal standards of academic merit and directly impacts the classroom.

It’s disturbing that Lubet shows no concern for due process here. If professors are going to be removed from teaching classes and running programs for their extramural utterances, this should be regarded as a serious penalty deserving a hearing and consideration, not a mere administrative shuffling of office space. There needs to be a faculty committee to hear all sides and reach a judgment about the proper action when extramural utterances are the basis for such a change, not arbitrary commands from an administration facing political pressure.

Defending free speech is not trivializing anti-Semitism. We do not show the strength of our opposition to anti-Semitism and bigotry by endorsing censorship. Instead, we must condemn hateful comments without calling for them to be punished, and demand due process for any kind of punishment that targets personal opinions.

One thought on “How to Oppose Anti-Semitism and the Chikindas Case

  1. Writer Wilson makes some fine and important points, while diplomatically maintaining a balanced position. He, and the Tribune writer as well, may be leaving out, however, a more fundamental issue, and that is whether or not the asserted offensive speech was in fact, hate-speech, or was it an expression of political opinion? Ergo, Mr. Wilson’s appropriate point concerning due process–to the extent it is even approrpiate. It is just as unfortunate, and perhaps equally offensive, to conflate freedom of expression concerning the political economy, with an assumption of ethno-religious bias. If one criticizes an African war-lord, is one ipso facto, prejudiced? If one criticizes N. Korea, or Russia, is one also inherently engaging in racial opinion? If one were to single out a radical sect of any group, does that implicate the whole? Of course not. Indeed, accusations concerning certain groups or classes have been so liberal at times, that it can be difficult to determine validity, and it is unfortunately used to silence or intimidate state-based criticism, which, perhaps ironically, is utterly central to protecting and advocating the kinds of freedoms, including religious ones, that the Tribune writer surely embraces, and enjoys. These are issues of logic, which is difficult to sustain when involving personal identity or political allegiance–for any of us. Otherwise, universities, professors, administrators, and students, may all be better off if they simply got out of the way, and out of the speech business. Readers may appreciate my recent opinion in the Wall Street Journal, “The Government and Free Speech on Campus.” https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-government-and-free-speech-on-campus-1510000926. Regards.

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