Local symposium explores free speech on campus

More than 40 academics, lawyers, Jewish community leaders, and others committed to free speech on campus gathered on Jan. 25 for a symposium on free speech, campus violence, and event disruption in Chicago. The seminar was co-sponsored by the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law and the Academic Engagement Network (AEN).

AEN, launched in 2015, is comprised of 520 professors and administrators at 194 universities across the country that are committed to opposing the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement on campus while affirming academic freedom and freedom of expression.

"Our interest in free speech evolved because on many campuses, pro-Israel speakers were being shouted down," said Mark Yudof, chair of AEN's Advisory Board and emeritus professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley. "On many campuses, [pro-Israel speakers] are in jeopardy of being completely silenced. The event doesn't even have to be political - cultural events draw protestors too. It has a chilling effect on the organizations that are inviting these speakers to campus."

Through four panels, the symposium explored an array of scenarios and situations germane to the rights of students, faculty, administrators, and speakers invited to campus. All agreed that heckling, threats, and violent disruptions should not be protected by colleges and universities.

"We want diversity of opinion, and we want robust debate in academic settings," said Charles Lipson, a professor at the University of Chicago.

Emily Briskman, the executive director of JUF's Israel Education Center, spoke on a panel about hate speech and the campus climate.

 "National issues, like free speech, are often magnified on campus," Briskman said. "When anti-Semitic rhetoric and symbols appear on campus, it's important for colleges and universities to call it out for what it is and respond swiftly and publicly. The safety of Jewish students on campus is an important conversation that we are deeply invested in."

Concerns over free speech go beyond campus: in October, the Senate held a hearing titled, "Exploring Free Speech on College Campuses."

Ensuring students can exercise their right to free speech and expression has become a "priority" for the Department of Justice, according to keynote speaker Jesse Panuccio, the Department's principal deputy associate attorney general.

"It's a priority because universities across the country are failing to adequately enforce free speech," Panuccio said.

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