Amid Surge in Hate, Rutgers Seeks Balance Between Safety and Free Speech

Matt Katz, WNYC | March 28, 2018 | More Issues
Consensus that it's not easy to counter outpouring of hate-filled voices

In response to a rising tide of hate speech, Rutgers University convened a forum Tuesday to try to grapple with a question: How can communities protect themselves from bigotry without violating the First Amendment?

The forum came amid an increase in bias incidents locally and nationally. Just this past weekend in New Jersey, a white nationalist group bragged about posting propaganda at the County College of Morris, and over in Lakewood, a Holocaust Memorial was vandalized for the second time this year.

Rutgers’ event — titled “Fighting Hate While Preserving Freedom” — brought together several former federal Homeland Security officials, three former and current New Jersey Attorneys General and a range of victims of hateful speech.

Jeh Johnson, a New Jersey resident who was Homeland Security Secretary under President Obama, called hate a new political tactic. “I regret to report that the lid has been peeled off of much of hate,” Johnson said. “It is open unlike any other period in modern times.”

Speakers attributed the rise in hate crimes and hate speech to the way social media can be used to spread messages with anonymity, and the reluctance of leaders like President Trump to prioritize the problem. Solving the issue is complex, they said — particularly for universities, which strive to host open discussions of thought but are also magnets for hate groups.

The university’s handling of recent controversies involving three Rutgers professors alleged to be anti-Semitic provided a case study in how nuanced the issue can be. University President Robert Barchi said in an interview that though each case involved finding a balance between free speech and protecting students, the media’s framing of the cases obscured the complexity.

“It revealed the intensity of some of the emotions at play and frankly the lack of understanding of the depth and breadth of the issues involved here,” he said. “They’re not as straightforward as people think.” Still, the controversies “generated a lot of internal and external conversation about why do we allow that, why don’t we fire that person, and how do we respond to it.”

This is how Rutgers responded: An international law adjunct professor who spread anti-Semitic lies while working for the president of Syria before his time at Rutgers no longer teaches at the school. A food science professor who posted anti-Semitic memes online still teaches — but not required classes. And a women’s studies professor whose anti-Israel scholarship is considered by some to be anti-Jewish remains at Rutgers — even though Barchi said he disagrees with her views. “Nevertheless, that is her right,” he said.

In addition to the accusations of anti-Semitism against professors, fliers for white nationalists have recently appeared on Rutgers’ campus, and there have been tense protests against the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, Barchi said, hate speech against Muslims and Jews spiked, and he worries about bias against both the school’s large Hindu population and “dreamers,” immigrants who were brought to the country without documentation as children.

Some of those dreamers and allied students gathered outside the forum, protesting the fact that former federal officials, whom they view as complicit in a racist system, were invited to a meeting on hate.

Barchi, though, said he believed hate was being driven by extremists on both sides. “I see as much of misunderstanding, lack of sensitivity and lack of willingness to discuss and compromise from the left as I do from the right,” he said. “I think some of the positions that have been espoused have come from the right, but I think some of the reactions to them which I find equally abhorrent on this campus have come out of the left.”

Specifically, he referenced conservative speakers on campus who are shouted down.

This time, though, the opposite happened. After one panelist, New York University chaplain Imam Khalid Latif, broadened the discussion to say that addressing controversies as they pop up doesn’t get to the root of the problem — which is white supremacy, embedded in the country’s DNA — he was yelled at. A white student in the crowd called Latif “anti-white.”

Rutgers officials spoke to the student, and he was allowed to stay in the room. It was a case in which his comments were deemed free speech, if not hateful.

But Latif said he believed the student would have been given less leeway if he had brown skin.

“If that was someone who looked like me who said something like that, you know the reaction would be different,” he said.

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