A Free-Speech War


On February 15, The New York Sun, in a front-page story, reported: “A Columbia University professor who has called Israel a ‘racist’ state with an ‘apartheid system,’ and who has supported attacks by Palestinian Arabs on Israelis, is scheduled to lecture a group of New York City public school teachers on how to teach Mideast politics to schoolchildren.

“The professor, Rashid Khalidi, is director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. His professorship is named in memory of Edward Said, a divisive scholar, and is paid for in part with a donation from the United Arab Emirates.”

Three days later, the Sun, in a celebratory editorial, “The Klein Example,” lauded the New York City Department of Education (DOE) and its chancellor, Joel Klein, for “promptly severing” its relationship with Professor Khalidi. Klein’s press secretary, Jerry Russo, explained: “Considering his past statements, Rashid Khalidi should not have been included in a program that provided professional development for DOE teachers, and he won’t be participating in the future.”

The free-speech war began. In a February 25 story in the weekly Forward (“N.Y. School Board Bans a Controversial Arab Professor”), mayoral candidate Anthony Weiner, a Democratic congressman from Brooklyn, and the American Jewish Committee agreed with Chancellor Klein. They believe it was right to expel Khalidi from this 12-week program in which, each week, a different Columbia professor, paid by the university, talks about a different aspect of the Middle East.

Disagreeing, however, with Klein’s removal of Khalidi were Columbia president Lee Bollinger, who threatened to pull out of the program, and Marc Stern, director of legal affairs at the American Jewish Congress. Marc Stern is on my list of First Amendment experts whom I call on for questions of church-state, free speech, free assembly, and other issues. Said Stern, for the American Jewish Congress, to Forward:

“It’s not as if we’re rejoicing that Khalidi gets an audience. But we don’t think the way to go about it is by treating Khalidi as if he is not qualified to teach on the Middle East.”

At the most basic core of the First Amendment is the precept “The answer to bad speech is more speech.” Agreeing with Marc Stern that Klein summarily violated that precept by flunking Khalidi is Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), of whose advisory board I’m a member.

In quoting Greg Lukianoff, Forward noted, as I have in the Voice, that FIRE “has stood squarely with the Jewish students in the Columbia melee [about its Middle East studies department].” Said Lukianoff: “The department was under no obligation to hire [Khalidi] in the first place [but] rescinding the invite after the fact does send a bad message.”

I am referred to correctly in the Forward roundup of this free-speech war as a “strong supporter of Jewish students at Columbia who have alleged that they have been subject to intimidation by several Middle East studies professors.”

I am then accurately quoted by Forward as saying: “They made a mistake in saying [Khalidi] can’t teach because of his political views. [They] should have brought in a team teacher for the course so that it wouldn’t be a one-sided indoctrination.” (Actually Khalidi, in his classes, has not been charged with intimidation by Jewish students. And when he lectured for city teachers, he spoke non-controversially on only geography and demographics.)

In a lead editorial that same day, The New York Sun mocked my team-teaching proposal: “[Hentoff is] a First Amendment expert who reckons the American Constitution requires New York taxpayers to pay for two Middle East teacher-trainers. . . . Maybe the First Amendment requires a teacher-trainer who says the Earth is flat and another who says it’s round.”

As I wrote to the Sun, consider how educational it would be for the public school teachers in the course and for the public if Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz were to team-teach with any of the bristlingly biased Middle East studies professors who squelch disagreement in their classrooms.

If such a contrapuntal free-inquiry class were televised, maybe on NY1, it would also cast more sunlight on that Columbia Middle East studies department, where some of the professors, in the name of academic freedom, deny academic freedom to some of their students. I expect that The New York Sun might want to cover that kind of team-teaching class.

As an ironic obligation to the free-speech face-off, the February 25 Forward reported that “the Sun published a column last year by Martin Kramer, a leader in a campaign against pro-Palestinian professors, in which he slammed Khalidi for warning Arab intellectuals against participating in events organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a think tank supported heavily by pro-Israel donors and now run by former U.S. Middle East envoy Dennis Ross.

” ‘Its basic function is to spread lies and falsehoods about the Arab world, of course under an academic, scholarly veneer,’ Khalidi was quoted as saying during a panel discussion broadcast on Al-Jazeera. ‘Basically this is the most important Zionist propaganda tool in the United States.’ ”

As a reporter, I occasionally find Dennis Ross useful because he has been a firsthand participant in key Middle East events interpreted to the contrary by Professor Khalidi. But since Khalidi, because of his views, has been banned by Joel Klein from New York City schools, maybe he might rethink his stern advice to Arab intellectuals to boycott the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Indeed, maybe Professor Khalidi, Marc Stern of the American Jewish Congress, Joel Klein, Greg Lukianoff of FIRE, and the editorial writers of The New York Sun might consider being part of a panel on “The answer to bad speech is more speech.” If they’re interested, and if the Voice would host the event, I would be glad to be the co-moderator with someone from the American Jewish Committee who approved of Klein’s firing of Khalidi.