What's the best way to defend freedom of speech?

Let freedom ring: Our right to hear controversial speech is under attack on college campuses nationwide

By George Beres

The Register-Guard (Eugene, Oregon) – Monday, October 29, 2007

Free speech is indivisible. Yet we witness a growing effort to diminish that freedom in Eugene, as well as nationwide. We see it in resistance to a forthcoming public appearance by historian Mark Weber.

Spoken words of Weber and of South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu may vary in their importance. But their freedom to speak, and our freedom to hear, should have equal merit. Ominously, recent developments on college campuses suggest that freedom -- our freedom -- is threatened.

Tutu's scheduled talk in Minnesota is the center of controversy that has mushroomed in higher education over cancellation of a number of speakers at various universities because of alleged critical attitudes toward Israel.

At the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul , Minn., Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace laureate, had been invited to speak next spring. Following a pattern of behavior in academia nationwide, St. Thomas withdrew its invitation, it said, for fear it might offend local Jews.

Similar events have occurred in recent months at the University of Montana, Barnard College, DePaul University and with the Chicago Council on Foreign Relations. In each case, a professor has been canceled as a speaker or denied tenure because of charges of anti-Semitism.

Similar controversy came at the University of Oregon three years ago, when sociology instructor Doug Card brought a lawsuit against Daniel Pipes of the New York Post for writing that he is anti-Semitic. It also twice cost a campus group, Pacifica Forum, meeting sites when sponsors of the group were challenged by people who insisted sponsorship be dropped because the forum had anti-Semitic programs, which was not proven.

Such charges were brought against Tutu. "We had heard of some things he said that some people judged to be anti-Semitic and against Israeli policy," said Doug Hennes, St. Thomas's vice president for university and government relations. Critics of the decision said attacks on Tutu were unjustified, and asked how criticism of a foreign nation's policies could even be relevant.

Such free expression is endangered in higher education, where criticism of Israel's influence in the U.S. is not tolerated by lobbyists for Israel. At the Chicago Council on Foreign Affairs, they prevented a talk by John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, authors of a book criticizing the Israeli lobby. (Both were to speak Oct. 24 at a Portland Council on Foreign Affairs program.) Walt was blocked from appearing at Montana.

Professor Norman Finkelstein, author of "The Holocaust Industry," was denied tenure at DePaul in Chicago, where he was subjected to criticism by professor Alan Dershowitz of Harvard, who admits he is a member of the Israeli Mossad Committee. Finkelstein's parents survived Nazi concentration camps.

The Israeli backlash did not surprise Mearsheimer and Walt, whose article last spring in the London Review of Books outlined their belief that "a powerful Israeli lobby has a pernicious influence on American policy." They write that "because the pro-Israel lobby has become so powerful, no aspiring politician will even raise the issue in public."

The controversy is still alive at St. Thomas, although Tutu has been reinvited. Marv Davidov of the Justice & Peace Studies program that invited Tutu to campus said: "As a Jew who experienced real anti-Semitism as a child, I'm deeply disturbed a man like Tutu could be labeled anti-Semitic and silenced like this. I resent the Israeli lobby trying to silence any criticism of its policy. It does a great disservice to Israel and to all Jews."

The author of a guest viewpoint in the Oct. 17 Register-Guard said there were "sinister" aspects to the Nov. 2 talk for Weber on the UO campus. Who knows until we hear him?

Freedom of speech assures that we get to hear and decide for ourselves.

George Beres, retired in Eugene, Oregon, was founding director of the University of Oregon Speakers Bureau. In the mid-1970s he was executive director of the Hellenic Foundation in Chicago. He can be reached at gberes @ uoregon.edu