No room for violence in 1st amendment debate


The events of the past six months in Israel and Gaza have me wishing it were possible to have just one more lunch with a friend who died four years ago.
My friend was Jewish. In today’s vocabulary, he would be called an ardent Zionist. He had little patience for people who disparaged Israel.
But he also was a proponent of dialogue and diplomacy. He never hesitated to call me for lunch after The Des Moines Register’s opinion pages published  something he disliked. Our lunchtime conversations and debates were models of civility, even though our discussions often challenged each of us to defend and reconsider our views.
That is why I wish we could have one more lunch to talk about the massacre of 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals by Hamas terrorists last October 7. I long to discuss Israel’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza, the home of those terrorists who were responsible for October’s bloody attacks.
Israel’s military has killed an estimated 34,700 Palestinians and injured 78,000 others, many of them women and children whose only crimes were living in an area they were unable to leave, where Hamas, not ordinary Palestinians, called the shots.
And I wish it were possible for us to discuss the protests that have rocked American college campuses in response to the Israel/Hamas war. Protestors have been divided. Some believe Israel is guilty of genocide for its attacks on Palestinian innocents. Others are angered by Hamas terrorists’ rape, torture and killing of innocent Jews.
Too many Americans, though, are unable to see the shades of grey that surround events like these. Too many of us tend to view issues as either all black or all white. Our political leaders do us no favors when they take the same absolutist approach to polarizing events and issues and overlook the vast middle ground where solutions might be negotiated.
This either/or approach fails to recognize people can both support Israel’s right to retaliate against Hamas and can also oppose the horrible devastation Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has unleashed on innocent Palestinians who have no way out of Gaza.
This either/or approach also fails to recognize protesters on America’s college campuses can be against both the killings in Gaza and the massacre of innocent Israelis last October. Opposing the killing of thousands of Palestinians does not make someone “pro-Hamas,” as some politicians would have us believe.
At times when public opinion is so sharply divided in the United States, we should embrace what our First Amendment rights are about.
The University of Chicago, a private school, has taken a commendable approach to freedom of speech and student activism through the years. Since 2016, the university has sent incoming freshmen a “welcome” letter that goes beyond orientation and registration.
The first such letter, in 2016, said: “Our commitment to academic freedom means that we do not support so-called trigger warnings, we do not cancel invited speakers because their topics might prove controversial, and we do not condone the creation of intellectual ‘safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own.”
The letter went on: “Members of our community are encouraged to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn, without fear of censorship. Civility and mutual respect are vital to all of us, and freedom of expression does not mean the freedom to harass or threaten others. … The members of our community must have the freedom of espouse and explore a wide range of ideas.”
The American Civil Liberties Union recently wrote to college presidents: “… It can be extraordinarily difficult to navigate the pressures you face from politicians, donors, and faculty and students alike. You also have legal obligations to combat discrimination and a responsibility to maintain order. But as you fashion responses to the activism of your students (and faculty and staff), it is essential that you not sacrifice principles of academic freedom and free speech that are core to the educational mission of your respected institution.”
The ACLU offered five “guardrails” to ensure freedom of speech and academic freedom, while also protecting against discriminatory harassment and disruptive conduct:
• Schools must not single out particular views for censorship, discipline or disproportionate punishment. Viewpoint neutrality is essential. Harassment directed at individuals because of their race, ethnicity or religion is not permissible — even if many people find these messages deeply offensive
• While offensive and even racist speech is constitutionally protected, shouting an epithet at a particular student or pinning an offensive sign on that person’s dormitory door can constitute impermissible harassment, not free speech. Physically intimidating students by blocking their movements or pursuing them aggressively is not protected conduct or protected speech. But speech that merely expresses impassioned views about Israel or Palestine is not discrimination and should be protected.
• Schools can announce and enforce reasonable time, place and manner restrictions on demonstrations to ensure essential college functions continue. But those restrictions must be content neutral, meaning they do not depend on the substance of what is being communicated, but rather where, when or how it is being communicated.
• Schools need to recognize armed police on campus can endanger students and are a measure of last resort. Arresting peaceful protestors is likely to escalate, not calm, tensions on campus.
• Schools must resist pressures from politicians seeking to exploit campus tensions to advance partisan agendas. “We urge you to resist the temptation to silence students or faculty members because powerful voices deem their views offensive.” The ACLU wrote. “Instead, we urge you to defend the university’s core mission of encouraging debate, fostering dissent, and preparing the future leaders of our pluralistic society to tolerate even profound differences of opinion.”
University of Chicago President Paul Alivisatos wrote recently about tent encampments on campus: “The general principle we will abide by is to provide the greatest leeway possible for free expression, even expression of viewpoints some find deeply offensive. We only will intervene when what might have been an exercise of free expression blocks the learning or expression of others or that substantially disrupts the functioning or safety of the university.”
We all need to take a cool-headed approach during fractious times.
Randy Evans can be reached at

Randy Evans, editorial, opinion, commentary, Jewish, Israel, Hamas, Palestine, Palestinians, Pen City Current, 1st amendment, debate, violence, colleges,


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