Incidents such as the one at Kent State University, in which a tenured professor shouted “death to Israel” during a lecture by a former Israeli diplomat, are rare, if not unheard of, in Pittsburgh.
But that doesn’t mean city universities have no way to address them in case they do occur.
The tenured history professor, Julio Pino, who reportedly has ties with a jihadist website, disrupted an Oct. 27 lecture by a former Israeli deputy consul general, Ishmael Khaldi, asking him an insulting question. Instead of accepting Khaldi’s invitation to ask another question, Pino left the hall chanting, “death to Israel.”
Kent State President Lester Lefton released a statement deploring the incident.
While anti-Israel professors are on the faculty of Pittsburgh universities, Aaron Weil, executive director and CEO of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh, said he knew of no incidents similar to the one at Kent State.
“I am not familiar with policies in Pittsburgh [universities] on hate speech, fortunately because there hasn’t been the need to be familiar,” Weil said. “Some faculty are anti-Israel, but in my eight years here I have not witnessed here what happened at Kent State.”
But he does believe Pino’s remarks crossed the line into hate speech.
“ ‘Death to is Israel’ cannot be seen merely as death to a political entity,” he said. “ ‘Death to Israel’ can be [seen] as a call to genocide.”
The Kent State incident poses difficult questions for local universities; namely, how far would they let a student or professor go before deciding the line between free speech and hate speech had been crossed? Is there such a line at all? And if there is such a line, should there be penalties for crossing it?
The American Civil Liberties Union clearly opposes any effort by colleges and universities to adopt hate speech policies on their campuses. That’s the wrong response, well meaning or not, according to a statement on the ACLU’s website.
“The First Amendment to the United States Constitution protects speech no matter how offensive its content,” the statement said. “Speech codes adopted by government-financed state colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution.”
However, advocates of hate speech policies say they protect groups for whom “the verbal attack is a symptom of an oppressive history of discrimination and subjugation that plagues the harmed student and hinders his or her ability to compete fairly in the academic arena,” wrote Gerald Uelman, dean of Santa Clara University School of Law and a fellow of the Center for Applied Ethics. “The resulting harm is clearly significant and, therefore, justifies limiting speech rights.”
Across the state, Temple University found itself in a situation similar to Kent State’s in 2009, only with Muslims as the target of the hate speech.
At that time, a student organization brought Geert Wilders, then a member of the Dutch parliament known for his anti-Islamic remarks, to Temple to speak. Students protested Wilders’ appearance on campus, brandishing signs that read “Hate Speech [does not equal] Free Speech,” according to the Philadelphia Daily News, and the Muslim Student Association issued a statement saying the campus Muslim community feels “attacked, threatened and ultimately unsafe.”
Nevertheless, the university allowed the program to go on. “We respect the right of our student organizations to invite people who express a wide variety of views and ideas,” a Temple spokesman wrote.
Closer to home, Pittsburgh area universities deal with the hate speech issue in different ways.
Carnegie Mellon University has a “Freedom of Expression Policy,” which guarantees the right to free speech — printed and spoken. The policy does not define hate speech, but it does state, “all such [free speech] activities must be peaceful, avoiding acts or credible threats of violence and preserving the normal operation of the university.”
“While we can’t comment on hypothetical situations,” said Kenneth Walters, a spokesman for Carnegie Mellon University, in an e-mailed response to the Chronicle, “I can tell you that the university would fully review the details of any charge of violations of community standards on our campus.
“Carnegie Mellon provides guidance to the university community on these issues through its freedom of expression policy, which addresses the nuances of free speech and the planning and response to speaker events,” he continued. “If a case were brought forward, it would be adjudicated based on a detailed review of the facts gleaned from those with first-hand knowledge, as such matters are impossible to judge fairly out of context or based on second-hand reports.”
Duquesne University does not define hate speech, according to Bridget Fare, assistant vice president for public affairs. Although, “we have a zero tolerance policy regarding verbal and other forms of aggressive attacks, threats, etc.”
Neither does the University of Pittsburgh have a hate speech policy, according to its spokesman, John Fedele. For Pitt students, though, the school has a pledge known as the Pitt Promise, a commitment to civility in which individual students pledge, among other things to “support a culture of diversity by respecting the rights of those who differ from myself” and “contribute to the development of a caring community where compassion for others and freedom of thought and expression are valued.”
Likewise, at Robert Morris University, the only policy that remotely addresses hate speech is for students, spokesman Jonathan Potts said.
“There’s no speech that’s prohibited per se,” Potts said. However, “our Code of Student Conduct speaks to behavior that is threatening or intimidating to an individual — that’s physically threatening or intimidating.”
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)