Some professors fear a “chilling effect” on free speech and academic freedom after President Jane Close Conoley made a statement to the campus opposing the Associated Students, Inc. resolution to divest in Israel, prompting several response letters from legal organizations, professors and the California Faculty Association.
“As a university leader, I examine every action I contemplate with the question, ‘Does this promote inclusion, excellence and public good at our university?’” Conoley wrote in her letter. “BDS resolutions fall short of this standard because they lessen one group’s sense of belonging, are based on binary assumptions that do not represent the complex and multinational realities of Middle East conflicts, and, finally, act as catalysts to acts of vandalism and violence.”
The letter, dated April 26, was sent to ASI senators the day before the first reading of the resolution titled “Socially Responsible Investing: Companies Complacent in and Profiting from Palestinian Oppression,” or SR #2017-37. It calls for the divestment of 49er Foundation funds in several companies that do business in Israel and is in line with the Boycott, Divest and Sanction movement. The resolution passed 15-7-1 on Wednesday and will move to the university administration to act on.
“Her letter is a direct threat to academic freedom on campus because when you condemn one side of a debate without evidence, you cast a shadow … over the campus,” said Liz Jackson, staff attorney for Palestine Legal. “And rightly so, it makes both students and scholars, or professors, afraid to speak openly about Palestinian rights out of concern that they too will branded with the stain of anti-Semitism, no matter how baseless that accusation is.”
According to its website, Palestine Legal is an organization that works toward “protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom.” Jackson wrote a letter to Conoley criticizing her statement and asking her to retract it. Jackson said her team is keeping an eye on the situation surrounding the divestment resolution at Cal State Long Beach.
Mark Yudof of the Academic Engagement Network, an organization made up of faculty who oppose the BDS movement and support academic freedom and freedom of expression, said that Conoley has the right to say what she thinks.
“University officials often speak out against racism and homophobia and to defend undocumented students and on other issues, and no constitutional concerns are implicated unless action is taken to discipline others for their views,” Yudof said in an email. “When a university official speaks, others are free to criticize, rebut and disagree. But no court has ever held that the official’s expression chills the speech rights of others. The idea of a chilling effect in these circumstances is antithetical to the First Amendment, which encourages robust and open debate of policy issues.”
Anthropology professor Ronald Loewe said that while Conoley has the same right to free speech as anyone else on campus, he worries that she might be overstepping her boundaries.
“I question from an educational standpoint, whether it’s good for a president to use her institutional authority to try and get a group of students to support or vote down a particular resolution on campus,” said Loewe, who supports the resolution.
The letter has also sparked heated debate on faculty forums online, namely the College of Liberal Arts forum.
“Among the faculty, President Conoley’s statement, I think, really distorted the conversation – at least to the extent that I was involved,” said Loewe. “We have a lot of discussions on the CLA forum … there were statements back and forth, but I got several emails from assistant professors who said, ‘I really wanted to comment on this, I support your position, but I’m coming up for tenure next year or in a couple years and I really don’t feel safe commenting on the issue now.’”
Others don’t see a problem with Conoley’s letter as a threat to academic freedom. Jeffrey Blutinger, professor of Jewish Studies, is opposed to the resolution but is supportive of an independent Palestinian state next to Israel.
“I’ve [experienced] situations where I’ve been in conflict with the administration and I’ve made public statements. I’m not sure why people would feel threatened by the president’s letter because she simply stated her opinion as to what she thinks good policy is,” Blutinger said. “As faculty, we have the freedom to speak on all issues, and faculty do … I haven’t seen any evidence that faculty feel any way silenced or their speech rights are chilled … If you take a position and I criticize it, have I chilled free speech? Only if you think any criticism is chilling of free speech.”
California Faculty Association President Douglas Domingo-Foraste issued a statement to faculty after Conoley’s letter was published to reassure them that they’re free to state their opinions and hold discussions on this matter.
According to the emailed statement, CFA also doesn’t hold a position on the merits of the BDS movement and is more concerned with faculty freedom of speech when it comes to expressing individual opinions. He said that while no one has told him that they personally were concerned, he has had about three or four faculty members tell him that others are.
“I just wanted to reinforce the faculty that they did have this academic freedom,” Domingo-Foraste said. “I wanted people to be treated with respect. I wanted them to know that there is no legal reason for them to fear for their jobs.”
Conoley said in a recent interview with the Daily 49er that she is “pro-Palestine and pro-Israel” and that she supports free speech and academic freedom of professors to state their opinions. She was also surprised to hear her statements interpreted the way they were.
“We have academic freedom, so we can speak without fear about controversial areas of scholarship, and that’s something I take very seriously and have for my whole career,” Conoley said. “I have a focus as a campus president to keep my campus as secure and welcoming as possible … If people’s concerns are more international and they speak out about matters, that’s certainly their right. I will always be looking out at how that will affect my campus … That’s my job.”
Jackson said that in California and across the country, there is a lot of pressure for professors to stay quiet if they support Palestine or BDS. While she couldn’t go into detail because of attorney-client privilege, she said that people at CSULB and other campuses have come to her saying they feel that they’re “branded” as anti-Semitic.
“I get questions like: ‘can I write a letter about this or will that affect my tenure?’ Questions like: ‘Can I teach a course on this issue or will that ruin my career?’ Questions like: ‘Can speak out in support for divestment or will that affect my family’s naturalization application if I’m smeared on the internet?’ Which is a likely possibility. All those kinds of questions, I field them daily,” Jackson said. “And unfortunately, often, my honest answer is: ‘It’s risky.'”
Some professors say they would like to see more open discussion on the topic, such as a public forum. Sherna Berger-Gluck, a CSULB professor emerita, was disappointed in Conoley’s letter and said she was concerned that the president was stifling debate by so publicly taking one side.
Said Berger-Gluck: “Vigorous discussion is what should be happening on campus, not closing down discussion.”