Mon, May

A University Degree in Suppressing Free Speech


ACCORDING TO LIZ - Universities are intended to be challenging, to encourage students to expand their universe and switch their mind-sets to stargazing in order to pursue a more expansive vision. To accept that other people have different opinions and embrace them anyway. 

University staff, from provosts to teaching assistants, are supposed to guide students, not control them. 

But that is not what is happening in American universities today, from Stanford to Harvard, from USC to Columbia. 

USC Provost Andrew Guzman first selected Asna Tabassum as this year's valedictorian and then prohibited her from speaking because she has publicly advocated for Palestinians. He then uninvited the celebrity guest speakers for the almost 20,000 graduates and projected 65,000 guests. 

Tabassum's Instagram page links to a slideshow that says “learn about what's happening in Palestine, and how to help” – ok, I’ll support that, and attacks Zionism as “a racist settler-colonial ideology that advocates for a jewish ethnostate built on palestinian land” – a little over the top but, spelling aside, consistent with the historical truth. 

The slideshow also called for a “one-state solution” that “would mean palestinian liberation, and the complete abolishment of the state of israel.” 

The Trojans for Israel student organization called this “antisemitic bigotry” and demanded the university rescind Tabassum’s right to give a valedictory speech. 

Hey guys, it's a link. It’s an opinion, and how is that any different than Israel’s current drive towards a one-state solution that completes the abolition of all Palestinian rights and territories? 

Guzman defended his decisions saying: “While this is disappointing, tradition must give way to safety.” This on a campus that lived through the Rodney King riots and the Black Lives Matter protests. 

Or is Guzman equating possible loss of revenue from pro-Israeli donors with destroying a special occasion? 

As a USC alumna, I say tradition is not running in fear whether from violence or donor disapprobation. I say it’s standing up for freedom of speech and for the right of Tabassum to voice her “uncompromising belief in human rights for all.” 

Let Guzman cower in his belief “that similar risks have led to harassment and even violence at other campuses” and let the games begin.\ 

On the other side of the country Columbia invited the police on campus to arrest more than 100 students opposed to the Israeli oppression of Gaza. 

Again supposedly to prevent violence. But what kind of violence?



“Columbia University made a huge mistake calling the cops on student protesters... It has transformed the activism of hundreds of students into a student movement of thousands” was the response of a Texas Tech faculty member. Students at campuses from North Carolina, Chapel Hill to Harvard are rallying to support those at Columbia, and emergency protests have been called for in Massachusetts and Ohio. 

Will the removal of a few hundred visible demonstrators and a move to online classes for Passover to appease and protect one faction really prevent further disruption as more and more students reject oppression of their right to speak up on issues that matter to them, on behalf of those suffering starvation and homelessness in the wake of Netanyahu’s indiscriminate war on Hamas? 

In parsing the arguments, they are not diametrically opposed. Protests against Israel’s current leader is not a protest against the Jewish faith. Protecting Israel does not require murdering civilians. 

The whole world is up in arms... ok, bad choice of words. But too many government officials are moving in response to the shaking by the monied interests that prop up their re-elections instead of common sense and compassion. 

AIPAC and Netanyahu-promoted activism among American billionaires, armament manufacturers who stand to make a mint, capitalists opposed to regulations that protect health and the future, agent saboteurs for a global network of right-wing reactionaries who thrive on disruption and destruction to advance causes inimical to the vast majority of those on earth. 

What about people’s quality of life? What about humanity? 

What about joining together to improve lives for all? 

And are the decision-makers at American facilities of higher learning taking sides on which voices they choose to muzzle? 

Again, it comes down to the unholy sway that the capitalist crony class exerts on our planet and the future. 

And the best tool they have to maintain their ironclad control over geometric expansion of their future profits is to ensure that the critical class, the students and journalists energized with analytical skills and recent gains in everything from union gains to the expansion of Arctic protections, are stifled and starved. 

To keep the Tabassum and her ilk from speaking. 

So that the masses can safely be pablum-fed on Fox News and brainwashed by the Netanyahus and Trumps. 

Earlier this month we experienced another skewering of reality by the very public resignation of Uri Berliner, a senior business editor at NPR after his suspension for volubly accusing the public radio network of liberal bias in coverage of important stories. 

The truth is that all opinions matter, and all should be allowed. Within the boundaries of common decency and decorum. 

Content can be open to interpretation but there is only so far that one can bend lies before they break on the altar of truth. 

People’s neural systems are designed to protect themselves and their personal interests, to hear threats louder than positive comments, to come out fighting to defend what they think they are owed. If they cannot receive the full panoply of information on a subject, how can anyone expect a reasonable response? 

Censorship only drives further misunderstanding, further anger about not being heard, further divisiveness. 

Will humankind continue on this downward spiral, or can universities regroup as a force to fight the frenzied flailing of the elite to maintain their absolutist power? 

To reverse the current trend towards self-interest and the worst excesses of capitalist control, and move to a sharing of resources and rebuilding of the public good?

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions.  In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)