The real war on free speech

Bari Weiss, as a sophomore at Columbia University, speaks at a press conference organized by Columbians for Academic Freedom, a group she co-founded, on March 31st, 2005. (photo: AP Photo / Tina Fineberg)
Some of the Harper’s letter signatories use their defense of free speech to silence support for Palestinian rights.

By Mari Cohen & Joshua Leifer | Jewish Currents | July 23, 2020

…failure to recognize the tension between their free speech advocacy on the one hand, and their pro-Israel advocacy on the other, reveals an unwillingness to reckon with the relationship between speech and power.

TWO WEEKS AGO, an open letter published in Harper’s Magazine and signed by more than 150 public figures, most of them writers or academics, ignited a new round of debate over “cancel culture” and its discontents. The letter portrayed freedom of expression in the United States as dangerously imperiled: “We uphold the value of robust and even caustic counter-speech from all quarters. But it is now all too common to hear calls for swift and severe retribution in response to perceived transgressions of speech and thought.” A week later, Bari Weiss, one of the letter’s high-profile signatories, resigned her position at the New York Times op-ed desk and self-published her resignation letter. Echoing the Harper’s letter, Weiss’s statement decried an increasingly “illiberal environment” in public discourse writ large and at the Times in particular. She wrote that her colleagues—and the public—have become unwilling to accommodate views that don’t adhere to “the new orthodoxy.”

Yet, as some critics have noted, Weiss has a long history of claiming to support free speech while trying to curtail the speech of Palestinian rights advocates, from her college days through her years at the Times. And she is not the only signatory of the Harper’s letter who has sought to silence those with whom she disagrees. Cary Nelson, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois, is a prominent opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement and has written extensively about the need to combat anti-Zionist scholarship in the name of academic freedom.

These figures’ attempts to shut down speech while advocating for “free speech” are certainly hypocritical. But more importantly, their failure to recognize the tension between their free speech advocacy on the one hand, and their pro-Israel advocacy on the other, reveals an unwillingness to reckon with the relationship between speech and power. “What [the Harper’s] letter is missing is the power dynamics,” said Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, where she oversees the nonprofit organization’s casework on free speech, academic freedom, and censorship. “The real problem is the problem of the state coming down on people who are speaking out” on Israel/Palestine.

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