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July 1, 2016

Free Speech and Fair Treatment for All

Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO and National Director of the Anti-Defamation League, has joined the Aspen Ideas Festival to discuss the debate on college campuses and beyond about the meaning of free speech and language that crosses a line and actually diminishes, rather than fosters, open discourse.

This blog originally appeared on Medium

The tug of war betwJG @ Aspeneen ideas is not new on college campuses. The very nature of the university is to gain knowledge and to “unlearn [the] habits” of convention in the words of Leon Wieseltier. And yet, many argue that free speech is under siege. In recent years, these issues have flared up across the country, grabbing headlines as incidents at the University of Missouri, Yale University, and Princeton University have sparked a national conversation about the exchange of ideas and the footprint of history.

As Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway shared at the Aspen Ideas Festival yesterday, these were highly charged debates punctuated by intensely personal moments. Throughout our discussion, it became clear that a simple assessment of right versus wrong often doesn’t work. The clash of theory and practice confounds administrators and trustees who struggle with the complex realities of how to ensure the university is an inclusive environment and yet one that cultivates debate and dissent.

But sometimes, it’s actually very simple.

For example, the issue of Israel has been a flashpoint on many campuses for some time. While there is nothing wrong with debating its policies as a matter of practice, there is something profoundly wrong when some with strong views exploit academic freedom to shut down the free exchange of ideas and marginalize a segment of campus, in this case Jewish students. Yet this often happens when Israel is the topic. We have seen anti-Israel agitators intimidate Jewish students, shout down Israeli speakers and attempt to prevent Jewish organizations from even discussing issues of social justice.

Sadly, such incidents are not surprising. These are the tactics of the anti-normalization strategy taking hold in some circles, the idea that even talking to students who are Jewish constitutes an offense because of their potential views on Israel. Such discriminatory practices clearly fall far outside all societal norms but their influence can be felt in broader circles.

Anti-Israel Protest - U-Michigan

An anti-Israel protest by University of Michigan students

Indeed, in the halls of some of our most elite universities, student leaders are trafficking in vicious anti-Semitic stereotypes. Others bizarrely conflate Zionism with all the perceived ills at their institutions. We have seen attempts to exclude Jewish students from taking part fully in student life or suggestions that they only can do so if they would submit to oaths not required of their peers.

Such bigotry is not the norm across the span of higher education. Yet these incidents should serve as reminders that anti-intellectualism and intolerance on campus can congeal into hostile environments that intimidate and marginalize people based on faith or nationality.

University administrators can take concrete measures to prevent such occurrences. First, they can create appropriate time, place, and manner policies that allow those who want to protest a particular speaker to do so — but in a manner that does not infringe on the freedom of speech that should be accorded to the speaker and to the audience who wants to hear their views.

Univ-California Irvine - Anti-Israel

Second, the administration can use its own voice to respond to hateful speech. Finally, the administration can take swift punitive action when students physically threaten their peers, demonstrating that there is a price to pay when you physically intimidate others.

Campuses should be a place for debate not silencing. Hostile environments that impair the free exchange of ideas injure us all. When the topic is Israel, let’s do more to ensure that all students can take part and that prejudice is left out of the debate.

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June 22, 2015

What Should We Tell Our Children About Charleston?

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Credit: Stephen Melkisethian / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

As we grieve, protest and further investigate the horrific murder of nine African American parishioners at the historic Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, SC, many people are asking: What should we tell the children?

Parents, family members and others are sometimes uneasy about discussing issues of violence and injustice with children because they want to protect them from terrible and scary topics. However, it is important that children have a language for discussing the unfairness and injustice they see in the world and that as adults, we model that these conversations are ones we are willing to engage in as we assure them that we are working to counteract injustice.

Except for very young children, it is important to raise the issue with children. It is likely that with online access and the 24/7 hour news cycle, many young people have already heard about it and may be looking for an opportunity to learn more. In talking with children about emotionally challenging topics, remember to:

  • Give them the time and space to express their feelings (whatever those feelings are) and actively listen with empathy and compassion.
  • Find out what they already know, clarify any misinformation they have and answer their questions. If you don’t know the answer, be honest about that and find out the answer together.
  • In an age-appropriate way and using language they can understand, share your own thoughts, feelings and specific values about the topic.
  • Give youth information about what is being done to make things safe and what actions are taking place to counteract the injustice.

Here are specific talking points you may want to cover with young people:

Words and symbols matter

We have heard that the alleged shooter, Dylann Storm Roof, told racist jokes and spewed biased ideology. A contemporary of Roof’s said “He made a lot of racist jokes, but you don’t really take them seriously like that.” Hate has the potential to escalate and the Pyramid of Hate illustrates how biased behaviors and attitudes—when left unchallenged—can lead to more serious acts of discrimination and bias-motivated violence such as the one perpetrated in Charleston. If those attitudes, beliefs and behaviors were questioned and addressed, perhaps there would have been different outcomes and those nine lives would not have been taken.

Symbols are forms of communication that convey important messages to children about what we value, what is important and what kind of society we want to create. Hate symbols, especially when disseminated and pervasive, communicate that hate and bias are acceptable. Roof had patches on his jacket of flags of regimes in South African and Rhodesia that enforced the violent white minority rule. He was also seen in several photos with a Confederate flag, which has come to symbolize racial hatred and bigotry. Ironically, the flag is still displayed in South Carolina’s statehouse grounds in Columbia and activists and elected officials have been pressing for its removal for years.

Racism is systemic and can be overcome

While Roof was not a formal member of a white supremacist organization, he espoused white supremacy ideology that is prevalent, online and worldwide. In addressing this topic with young people, we need to give them hope and inspiration by showing them that we have come a long way on issues of race and other social justice issues by pushing for legislation, educating people and taking action. At the same time, it is also important that we connect the dots so that young people understand that issues such as school segregation, racial disparities in the criminal justice system and voting rights are not individual acts but are part of a larger system and that if societal change is going to take place, the solutions also need to be systemic.

Activism makes a difference

Since the murders last week, there have been protests across the country and in Charleston and Columbia, SC specifically calling public officials to take down the Confederate flag as a first step. On Sunday, in a moving demonstration of empathy and connection, church bells across Charleston tolled for nine minutes to symbolize the nine victims. We know that our nation has a long history of activism that has brought about significant social change–from marriage equality to immigration reform and the recent “Black Lives Matter” movement. One of the most important principles we can convey to our children is that their voices and actions make a difference and will help to build a better world.

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July 24, 2013

Foul Ball: Hate Speech, Twitter & Baseball

In the past week, the ability to spread hate about ethnic and religious minorities in real time has twice played out on Twitter in the context of baseball. ryan-braun-twitter-hate

After Milwaukee Brewers outfielder Ryan Braun was suspended from Major League Baseball for the remainder of this season for using performance enhancing drugs, some Twitter users responded by posting distinctly anti-Semitic messages.

Among the tweets that can be found when searching for Braun on Twitter are:

  • leave it to a jew to cheat the system, deceive people, then tarnish other’s reputations. Fuck you asshole
  • Ryan Braun jew’d us!
  • Ryan Braun didn’t make a mistake…he cheated, lied about it and than got caught…fuckin jew
  • Of course Ryan Braun was juiced out of his mind. How else could a Jew be that great at anything besides accounting

While anti-Semitic tweets about Braun did not start with his suspension, the recent tweets follow a barrage of racist tweets in response to singer Marc Antony’s singing “God Bless America” at Major League Baseball’s All-Star game in New York on July 16.

While Anthony is an American citizen of Puerto Rican descent, numerous offensive tweets made the rounds, saying  “shouldn’t an American be singing God Bless America?” and implying that Anthony is actually from Mexico or Cuba, generally asserting  anyone who is Latino in appearance is not inherently American.

ADL ardently supports the right to free speech, but believes that social media and other Internet sites also have an obligation to police their communities and confront those who promote anti-Semitism, racism and other forms of hate speech.

Twitter has no terms of service or community standards that address aggressive or malicious behavior on the service. Additionally, Twitter does not provide even the most basic “Flagging” mechanism for complaints which is widely used on the experienced platforms run by Google and Facebook.

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