Local universities struggle with freedom of speech issues following Oct. 7
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First Amendment fightsCampus now ground zero in free speech debates

Local universities struggle with freedom of speech issues following Oct. 7

“The First Amendment does not just protect speech that simply makes everybody feel good and safe,” he said.

CMU and Pitt students attended an Oct. 9 rally carrying signs in support of Palestine in its war with Israel started by Hamas. (Photo by David Rullo)
CMU and Pitt students attended an Oct. 9 rally carrying signs in support of Palestine in its war with Israel started by Hamas. (Photo by David Rullo)

Things have improved on Carnegie Mellon University’s campus since a November pro-Palestinian rally that included calls for a global intifada, according to Ben Koby.

“The November hate rally was a defining moment that catalyzed a change in the environment,” he said.

Koby is the co-president of the Jewish Graduate Student Association at CMU. He said that after the rally, CMU President Farnam Jahanian issued a public statement regarding the language that was used by the protesters, and since then things have “generally improved fairly dramatically.”

Jananian’s written statement said that Jewish students had been subjected to “hateful phrases and slurs,” specifically referring to the chant “From the river to the sea.” Jananian also wrote that he heard that Arab students were called “terrorists,” degenerates” and “animals.”

“I condemn speech that advocates the eradication of any group of people,” he wrote.

And while things may be quieter now at the university — classes just restarted after winter break and seasonal weather has cooled temperatures, both figuratively and literally — there is no doubt that college campuses across the country have become ground zero in the fight over freedom of speech.

“This is a very complex issue because there are a lot of layers to come over something like this,” said Bruce Antkowiak, a former federal prosecutor and criminal defense attorney who has taught law at Duquesne University and St. Vincent College, including courses on constitutional law.

“The first layer is that a campus is a state institution where the Constitution clearly and directly applies,” Antkowiak explained. “Even if it’s a private institution, colleges are funded so much by federal funds, and those funds come with the condition you not be discriminatory.”

As an example of non-discrimination, Antkowiak pointed to CMU’s recent controversy regarding its “Fence,” a wall where students are allowed to paint messages. After the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack, dueling messages were painted on the wall by different groups.

Jewish students originally painted “Stand with Israel” on the Fence. Days later, pro-Palestinian students painted “76 Years of Occupation.”

Both messages followed the university’s regulations, so they were allowed to remain.

Beyond funding, Antkowiak said that universities have a commitment to the liberal arts, and with that commitment comes the obligation to help students understand conflicting views and gain tools to assess those views.

“Not just listening to the loudest voices that shout,” he said, “but learning to discern which side is making the case and which side is making noise.”

This may be why CMU allowed the Nov. 9 rally — promoted by Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Pittsburgh — to take place, even though the protestors did not have a CMU community sponsor, which the university requires.

At the time, CMU issued a statement on X, formerly Twitter, saying the rally was not approved but that university police would work to promote safety and security.

“We made clear in messages to those promoting the event that it was not authorized without a university sponsor, as outlined in our Freedom of Expression policy,” said CMU Director of Media Relations Peter Kerwin in a written statement.

While the anti-Israel rhetoric at the rally may be protected under the First Amendment, Antkowiak said, hate speech — speech that incites violence or that intentionally spreads falsehoods — is not protected by the Constitution.

The line between hate speech and protected speech, though, is frequently at issue on college campuses.

“For many people, the First Amendment is one of the primary American battlegrounds,” Antkowiak said. “When do you cross that line? The First Amendment is supposed to allow a lot of speech that people vehemently disagree with and allow people to access it and make up their own mind about what is true and what is not.”

The alternative, he said, is a world in which everyone talks like Mister Rogers did on television — which might be a wonderful message but doesn’t lead to a vibrant exchange of viewpoints.

Even so, Antkowiak said, free speech isn’t absolute.

“The city of Pittsburgh doesn’t have to allow the Cleveland Browns fan club to hold a march down Grant Street whenever it wants,” he said. “It doesn’t allow veteran organizations to do a march whenever it wants. There are practical regulations that have nothing to do necessarily with the content of the message.”

For example, universities often have regulations that define what can and can’t be promoted in printed materials like posters, who can hang them and where they can be displayed.

This policy, too, became a recent point of contention at CMU when Jewish student groups hung posters supporting the hostages being held by Hamas. Those posters were torn down and sometimes replaced with pro-Palestinian posters whose origins were unclear.

Koby said that the situation is improving and that there are now “clearly depicted guidelines for posting posters,” and that those regulations say, “that enforcement of this policy will be done consistently.”

CMU isn’t the only local university to struggle with the freedom of speech since Oct. 7. Allee Hochhauser, the student president of Chabad at Pitt, said there were some disturbing anti-Israel rallies on the University of Pittsburgh’s campus.

“It was a little scary at first,” she said, noting that the rallies at Pitt included a “die-in” calling for a cease-fire.

Many Jewish students were frightened, Hochhauser said. The fact that a statement from the university’s president had to be rewritten to adequately address Jewish concerns didn’t help, she said.

Like at CMU, the temperature has cooled since students returned from winter break.

“I think recently Pitt has been doing a much better job at making sure a lot of these protests are mediated, so they’re not out of hand,” Hochhauser said. “I think it has lightened up a lot.”

Hochhauser said she feels protected on campus and has been given space for her opinions.

“I’ve had professors last semester who were amazing at making sure my thoughts and opinions were heard,” she said. “I wrote essays about it. And I felt protected within that realm.”

The start of a new semester, though, does bring some anxiety for Hochhauser.

“There is hesitation beginning with new professors, especially this semester,” she said. “I think Jewish students everywhere — I don’t want to make that generalization, but generally speaking — it is a little nerve-wracking just being Jewish within a classroom.”

Pitt spokesperson Jared Stonesifer said in an email that the university is committed to the principles of free speech, the open exchange of ideas and the development of a culture that inspires constructive debate.

“We recognize that free, legally protected, and open expression can include ideas or speech that some may consider wrong. But in no way does this provide license for speech or behavior that is discriminatory, abusive, harassing, or harmful. As University leaders, we work intentionally to create a culture of support across our entire Pitt community, including to ensure the ready access of resources to those who need them.

“We take pride in our mission to be a community where respectful and productive dialogue can exist and where compassion is nourished and promoted,” Stonesifer continued. “In that spirit, any act or report of discrimination, physical violence and/or threatening behavior is taken with the utmost seriousness, and investigated fully according to University policies and procedures, and, where appropriate, in partnership with law enforcement.”

Some of the tensions felt on campuses simply come from living with the First Amendment, Antkowiak said.

“The First Amendment does not just protect speech that simply makes everybody feel good and safe,” he said. “It can’t because it would lose its character as a protection of a basic right. It is a big price this country decided to pay to have a First Amendment.”

Carnegie Mellon University officials declined to be interviewed for this story although they emailed a statement titled “Guiding Principles During this Time.” It included four points: “1. Support our community — and especially our students as best we can. 2. Lower the temperature. 3. Lean on our scholarship and commitment to education. 4. Stay true to our core values.”

In a statement emailed to the Chronicle, the University of Pittsburgh said that it is committed to the principles free speech, open exchange of ideas and constructive debate.

“We recognize that free, legally protected, and open expression can include ideas or speech that some may consider wrong. But in no way does this provide license for speech or behavior that is discriminatory, abusive, harassing, or harmful. As University leaders, we work intentionally to create a culture of support across our entire Pitt community, including to ensure the ready access of resources to those who need them. We take pride in our mission to be a community where respectful and productive dialogue can exist and where compassion is nourished and promoted. In that spirit, any act or report of discrimination, physical violence and/or threatening behavior is taken with the utmost seriousness, and investigated fully according to University policies and procedures, and, where appropriate, in partnership with law enforcement.”
PJC

David Rullo can be reached at drullo@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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