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Topic: Brandeis

Brandeis Learns a Lesson in Free Speech

When a major accusation is leveled against a high-profile individual or institution, the rebuttal can often do far more damage than the charge, by inadvertently confirming the worst of the allegations even while attempting to deny them. That seems to be the case with Brandeis University. Its response to the Wall Street Journal’s revelations about the denial of due process and speech rights to a pro-Israel student at the behest of a college J Street official appears to only buttress the case against the school.

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When a major accusation is leveled against a high-profile individual or institution, the rebuttal can often do far more damage than the charge, by inadvertently confirming the worst of the allegations even while attempting to deny them. That seems to be the case with Brandeis University. Its response to the Wall Street Journal’s revelations about the denial of due process and speech rights to a pro-Israel student at the behest of a college J Street official appears to only buttress the case against the school.

To recap: over the weekend, the Journal conducted an interview with Brandeis senior Daniel Mael. The story recounted an incident that occurred in fall 2013 and its extended aftermath. Mael is an honor-roll student and an active member of the university’s pro-Israel and Orthodox Jewish communities. Mael is currently embroiled in a more recent controversy for coming under attack for reporting the anti-cop tweets of another Brandeis student leader in the wake of the execution of two New York police officers. Mael’s pro-police stand was echoed by the university president, who stood by his right to report the public comments of the anti-police student. Unfortunately, the school’s support for Mael’s free speech rights is a rather recent development.

In October 2013, two campus pro-Israel groups hosted former Israel Defense Forces spokesman Barak Raz. Brandeis student and J Street campus leader Eli Philip apparently didn’t like what he heard from Raz, and challenged Raz and Mael in a Facebook exchange the following day.

Mael wanted to keep the debate going, “challenging [Philip] in the university’s marketplace of ideas, including by publishing articles and circulating petitions.” Philip’s response was hostile to the very idea of such debate: “Mr. Philip interpreted this as harassment, and in a Dec. 9, 2013, complaint to Brandeis administrators, he presented charges under the university code of conduct.”

The university, irresponsibly, played along and went after Mael. Officials told him not to use social media and to be prepared for Philip’s (as-yet-unexplained) charges. Philip went on a semester abroad, which brought a pause to the show trial proceedings. When Philip returned, so did the campus commissars. The charges were revealed: bullying, harassment, religious discrimination. Nonsense, but I suppose sadly appropriate for J Street to take up the practice of lawfare against supporters of Israel.

The tide would start to turn back in Mael’s favor when the Emergency Committee for Israel retained the law firm of Covington and Burling to represent Mael. Here’s how it ended:

By the end of October, Mr. Mael was finally provided a copy of the charges he would face. And Covington & Burling submitted to Brandies two lengthy legal memoranda blasting violations of Mr. Mael’s rights. One letter concluded: “We reserve all rights on behalf of Mr. Mael, including the right to assert claims for the reputational and other harms caused by the baseless allegations at the heart of this proceeding.” In other words: See you in court.

On Oct. 27 Dean Adams informed Mr. Mael via email that the “allegations against you will not be adjudicated through our Student Conduct Board. The accuser has withdrawn from the option to do so and therefore this case should be considered closed and without determination of fault or sanction. . . . Thank you for your cooperation.”

The only thing that stopped Brandeis’s assault on Mael’s rights was the possibility of having to defend their actions in lawful proceedings. Their actions were indefensible, and they knew it.

But after the Journal story ran, Brandeis president Frederick M. Lawrence wrote a letter to the Journal ostensibly to dispute the story. Except he didn’t–or, more likely, couldn’t–dispute the essential facts of the case. His letter is quite revealing; he must fill it with pompous boilerplate about how great he and his university are and therefore shut up:

Our university has an unyielding commitment to free speech and expression of ideas. No student would ever be sanctioned for holding a specific point of view. In the spirit of our namesake Justice Louis D. Brandeis, we will staunchly defend every student’s right to advocate for causes they hold dear.

Moreover, Brandeis’s affinity with Israel has never been stronger, and no university in the United States is more deeply engaged with Israel. This connection is central to our identity as the only non-sectarian university founded by the Jewish community in the country, and indeed outside of Israel, in the world. It is a connection that reinforces our engagement in far-reaching research and scholarship. Though we have students, faculty and alumni on many sides of the debate, our dozens of centers, institutes, programs, scholarships and bridge-building efforts are proof that Brandeis University embraces those who stand with Israel.

In other words, if you’re looking for what the Journal got wrong, you won’t find it here. Lawrence does say that “Though privacy laws prohibit us from providing details, The Wall Street Journal article contains several breathtaking mischaracterizations.” And who wouldn’t take the school’s word for it? Would Frederick M. Lawrence, “accomplished scholar, teacher and attorney” (according to his bio) who is “one of the nation’s leading experts on civil rights, free expression and bias crimes” lie to you? Are you really going to believe your lying eyes?

A proper rebuttal would have, well, rebutted the accusations. Brandeis wouldn’t do that, suggesting Mael’s side of the story is correct. Instead, we get assurances that the school values free speech and Israel and intellectual engagement no matter what the facts say. If the vaunted institutions of American academia are reduced to insisting their glorified press releases should be the final word on serious battles over basic constitutional rights, then they should be happy to have students like Mael around to give administrators a periodic refresher course in those rights.

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Re: The Shame of Brandeis

John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

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John Podhoretz rightly castigates Brandeis for rescinding an honorary degree for Ayaan Hirsi Ali, an important critic of the manner in which many women are treated in the Islamic world. While I do not always agree with Ayaan, whom I have met two or three times, John is absolutely right to call the decision of the president of Brandeis an act of a “gutless, spineless, simpering coward.”

That said, it’s important not to see such an act in isolation, for what happened at Brandeis is increasingly the rule rather than the exception. When I was in New York in February, I picked up a copy of Greg Lukianoff’s Unlearning Liberty, an expose and study of campus censorship. I was lucky I did, because while I have visited the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) website from time to time (where Lukianoff is president) Unlearning Liberty ties together all the threads and cases and unfortunately paints a pretty distressing picture of just how far universities have fallen from being bastions of tolerance, free speech, and ideological diversity.

He describes—with ample evidence and numerous anecdotes—the implication of the 1990s political correctness movement; the rise of campus speech codes; bureaucracies and lack of due process; the transformation of identity politics into a religion and the sacrifice of respect for individual religious choices at the altar of identity politics; the lack of due process in campus judiciaries and their prosecution of ideological crimes; and much, much more. Alas, it’s not just students who suffer: Few professors say they feel free expressing their opinion openly, and administrators who have many opinions but shallow academic background often seek to censor what can be taught so as to insulate students from offense.

Hands down, Unlearning Liberty was the most impressive book I have read in quite some time; that I finished it just two days prior to Brandeis’s decision was an unfortunate coincidence, but one that simply transformed the Brandeis case into the final exclamation point in a far broader problem.

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