Civil Liberties

Steven Salaita and the Tyranny of 'Hate Speech'

"Hate" is in the eye of the beholder.


Last week, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) Trustees voted 8-to-1 to deny a tenured position to Steven Salaita, a professor who had been slated to start teaching there this semester. Salaita's job offer was initially rescinded in response to outcry over statements he tweeted about Gaza and Israel, which some have labeled "hate speech."

Two weeks before his scheduled August start date, Salaita received the rejection letter from UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise, who had been meeting with concerned donors and alumni about Salaita's appointment. In a blog post, Wise explained that her decision "was not influenced in any way by his positions on the conflict in the Middle East nor his criticism of Israel." Rather, the school "cannot and will not tolerate…personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them."

"Is this meant to be serious?" asked Robert L. Shibley, senior vice president at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. "If I am an Illinois student or professor, am I actually to be prohibited from 'disrespectfully' 'abusing' ideas with which I disagree? What about racism, fascism, or communism? What if I am 'disrespectful' of a colleague or fellow student's belief that the world is flat, or that the Sun circles the Earth?"

In other words, a policy against 'disrespectfully abusing' ideas can never be divorced from the content of those ideas. This is not merely about Salaita's tone, but the fact that those who felt disrespected were able to view his comments as hate speech—a form of expression designed to disparage or intimidate a protected group. In the United States, hate speech is only considered beyond the bounds of protected expression when it's intended to incite imminent violence. But university speech codes have for decades pushed the limits of limiting expression, and lately we've been seeing a resurgence of hate-speech mission creep.

Josh Cooper, a UIUC senior who collected more than 1,000 signatures on a petition against Salaita's appointment, told university Trustees that "hate speech is never acceptable for those applying for a tenured position…[and] yes, there must be a relationship between free speech and civility." According to Cooper, the incivil nature of Salaita's social media presence is a "mechanism for silencing alternative views."

In more than 100 tweets between late July and August 1, Salaita condemned Zionism and Israel's bombing of Gaza in an impassioned, blunt, and emotional manner. But nothing jumped out at me as being clearly hateful or beyond the realm of non-psychotic discourse. Here's a sample:

Zionists: take responsibility. If you support #Israel, fine, but you don't get to pretend you also support democracy or human rights. #Gaza

"#Hamas makes us do it!" This logic isn't new. American settlers used it frequently in slaughtering and displacing Natives. #Gaza

It seems the only way #Obama and #Kerry can satisfy #Israel's Cabinet is if they bludgeon Palestinian children with their own hands.  #Gaza

I repeat: if you're defending #Israel right now, then "hopelessly brainwashed" is your best prognosis.

Controversial statements? Sure, but nothing too far from Twitter-discourse norms. And certainly not enough to ascertain Salaita as an unhinged, anti-Semitic monster. The charges of anti-Semitism seem to hinge on one Tweet, which has been passed around by media and critics as where Salaita crossed the line:

Zionists: transforming 'anti-Semitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.

That does sound pretty terrible—taking the actions of Israel or Zionists as indicative of all Jewish people and thus justification for opposing them wholly is pretty much textbook racism. But here's his tweet immediately preceding it:

If it's 'antisemitic' to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have? #Gaza

Salaita was criticizing what he sees as a Zionist tendency to accuse anyone who defends Gaza of being an anti-Semite. The "honorable" anti-Semitism he referred to was in relation to this first tweet—if supporting Gaza makes one an anti-Semite, then anti-Semitism is honorable.

And let's remember that we are talking about tweets, not statements Salaita made in the classroom or any sort of academic context. The director of UIUC's American Indian Studies department, where Salaita was to teach, dismissed the idea that Salaita—previously a professor at Virginia Tech—would be hostile to students with differing viewpoints. "Nothing is nearly so obvious as Salaita's detractors would have us believe," said director Robert Warrior in a statement to the Trustees. "In our review of Salaita's teaching, American Indian Studies found no evidence of anything but strong teaching, motivated by what seems like a sincere interest in allowing every student the chance to broaden their skills in critical thinking."

But to critics, the non-academic nature of Salaita's statements doesn't matter. Because they are hate speech, they contribute to an unsafe campus evironment. Hiring Salaita would "come uncomfortably and irresponsibly close to endorsing violence against individuals or groups of people," stated a Chicago Tribune editorial. "There's room for profanity, vitriol and provocative language, but there's no reason to make room for hate speech."

But if profanity, vitriol, and provocative language have no bearing here, what exactly does make something hate speech? This is the ever-shifting goal post. Let's take a look at several more examples where hate speech accusations have been leveled recently.

On the campus of Canada's Carleton University, college administrators are investigating photos of students wearing shirts that said "Fuck Safe Space." The school's safe space policy designates all university space as "anti-oppressive" and free of hate speech, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and swearing. Denigrating the safe space policy, some argued, might be de facto hate speech.

In Brooklyn earlier this month, a woman was charged with a "hate crime" for expressing anti–New York Police Department sentiment in her graffiti, including "NYPD pick on the innocent" and "a wrongful arrest is a crime."

Students at Yale have been objecting to the school's inviting Ayaan Hirsi Ali to give a talk on campus. Ali is a Somalian feminist and vocal critic of Islam (including here in the pages of Reason, where she says "there is no moderate Islam"). Thirty-five student groups co-signed a letter from the Yale Muslim Students Association saying that such comments about Islam should "have been classified as hate speech."

The same charge was lobbed by Yale students at Reverend Bruce Shipman, a Yale chaplain who penned a short letter about Israel for The New York Times recently. Shipman cautioned against making too little of the relationship between Israel's actions and rising anti-Semitism in Europe, concluding that, "as hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel's patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question." On both Yale's campus and in the media, Shipman was accused of justifying racism and hate.


But "Rev. Shipman's comments would hardly have been construed as hate speech if he swapped Israel for Russia and Gaza for Ukraine," suggested Yale student Adrian Lo in a Yale Daily News column.

And this gets to the crux of hate speech hypocrisy. Ideologues on all sides invoke hate speech as if it's some sort of ironclad classification—as if obviously their side's speech is protected, neutral commentary, while the other's side's speech is clearly different, dangerous, full of secret biases and malicious intent. But "hate" is in the eye of the beholder. In practice, the distinction between hate speech and acceptable discourse necessarily turns on a million subjective value judgements. And the subjective nature of determining hate speech makes it a useful weapon for stifling dissent.

In Salaita's statement, he invoked UIUC's documented deference to donors in his case as an example of "the ability of wealthy donors and the politically powerful to create exceptions" to the principles of academic fredom that "should be worrying to all scholars and teachers." David Sessions, a journalist and Boston College PhD graduate student, wrote in an open letter ot Chancellor Wise that "UIUC's handling of the Salaita case is alarming because it raises the possibility—in fact, it all but guarantees—that universities will allow scholars' social media prescences to be turned into weapons by their political opponents."

Designating something hate speech is an effective rhetorical tool because it makes some arguments just not fit to be reckoned with. The speaker does not have to be taken seriously. There's no need to examine why the argument might make people feel unsafe or uncomfortable, nor consideration of what potential value lies in it being aired. Once hate speech has been accused and civility invoked, we're supposed to tread lightly as far as First Amendment protections are concerned.

But "a democracy can flourish only with a robustly open public sphere where conflicting opinions can vigorously engage one another," as the American Historical Association wrote in a letter to UIUC.

Such a public sphere rests on the recognition that speech on matters of public concern is often emotional and that it employs a variety of idioms and styles. Hence American law protects not only polite discourse but also vulgarity, not only sweet rationality but also impassioned denunciation. Civility is a laudable ideal, and many of us with that American public life had more of it today….But the requirement of "civility" on speech in the university community or in any other sector of our public sphere—and punishing infractions—can only backfire. Such a policy produces a chilling effect, inhibiting the full expression of ideas that both scholarly investigation and  democratic institutions need.

Salaita noted that his long history of academic, professional, and online writing "indicates quite strongly and clearly" that he is "opposed to all forms of bigotry and racism, including anti-Semitism." But though shorter Twitter statements can be more easily misconstrued, there is still value in them. "I was tweeting from moments of dismay from what is happening in Gaza, and in that sense the tweets serve as a useful record of a particular moment in time."

If Salaita decides to bring a lawsuit against the university, the case will likely turn on contract law and whether he had earned any employee protections by virtue of having accepted the university's job offer, though there could also be constitutional claims. In any event, Salaita's story speaks to a larger, worrying devaluation of free speech in 21st century academia. "I think of the civil rights movement, I think of the anti-war movement and the role the chaplains played in that, often incurring the wrath of big givers and donors of the university," said Rev. Shipman, "but they were protected and they were respected. That seems not to be the case now."