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A chilling effect [Editorial]

The decisions taken by the American Studies Association, a small, relatively obscure scholarly organization devoted to the study of American history and culture, rarely resonate much beyond the ivied walls of academe. But earlier this year the group created an unaccustomed stir when its members voted to endorse a boycott of Israeli academic institutions as a way of protesting that country's treatment of Palestinians.

Supporters of the Jewish state were quick to denounce the move as anti-Semitic and anti-Israel, a charge the ASA denied. Its critics then went further by attempting to pressure Maryland's public colleges and universities into cutting all ties with the group. That effort failed, but now those who oppose the ASA are backing legislation in this year's General Assembly that would punish the schools for associating with any group that advocates boycotts, divestment or sanctions against Israel by withholding a portion of their budgets. Such a law would have a chilling effect on speech and would be inimical to the mission of institutions of higher education. We urge lawmakers to reject this ill-considered attempt to curtail academic freedom and the unfettered exchange of ideas.

We do not agree with the American Studies Association's support for an academic boycott. As we have written before, we believe its stance to be unhelpful and perhaps even counterproductive as a strategy for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, the ASA itself is guilty of stifling academic freedom in this regard. But attempting to stifle the expression of opposing views is never palatable, whether it's being done by Israel's critics or supporters. One of the purposes of colleges and universities is to serve as a forum for vigorous debate, and lawmakers have no business dictating to faculty and students what they can think or who they can talk to.

If the legislature can prohibit some ideas as off limits simply because it disagrees with those who express them, what's to keep it from banning discussion of any subject that causes it discomfort? No one would countenance a law that penalized schools for teaching French or having French exchange students on their campuses because lawmakers disagreed with French foreign policy. But the arguments advanced by backers of this bill are even more convoluted than that. In effect, they propose punishing an institution simply for allowing a faculty member to debate the merits of a proposition — in this case whether a boycott is an effective way of achieving social change — with a professional colleague who holds a different view.

Worse still, the legislation seems aimed essentially at a handful of professors in the American Studies Department at the University of Maryland Baltimore County, which is the only state university that has faculty members formally affiliated with the ASA. Passing a law that broadly restricts speech across the entire University System of Maryland in order to intimidate fewer than a half dozen UMBC staffers is like hauling out a canon to swat a gnat.

If that approach were applied to chemists or electrical engineers or evolutionary biologists, the foundations of the entire academic enterprise based on the reasoned search for truth would crumble. You can't censure some ideas without opening the possibility that all ideas are potentially punishable offenses. Virginia's unhappy experience with an overzealous state attorney general who tried to prosecute a climate scientist at the state's flagship university for publishing research findings with which he disagreed ought to serve as a cautionary tale for any Maryland legislator tempted to embark down a similar path.

That is also why Maryland's public colleges and universities, led by University of Maryland College Park President Wallace D. Loh, have resisted any effort to silence debate regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or to prohibit academic exchanges involving students and faculty. As Mr. Loh explained in defense of the university's role in fostering greater understanding of thorny social and political issues, the best way to resolve conflicts "is by engagement, not by estrangement through boycotts." His comment is a testament to the belief that it is possible to uphold the principle of academic freedom even though one may disagree strongly with the ideas or methods advocated by one or the other sides of the dialogue.

That should be the principle that guides lawmakers as well: The antidote to speech one dislikes is more speech, not less. Attempting to silence ideas one finds repugnant is bad policy not only because it rarely makes them go away but also because it limits the possibility that new ideas will emerge to bridge deeply held differences. A tolerance for unwelcome ideas is exactly what is needed if the Israeli-Palestinian dispute is ever to be resolved in a way both sides can live with, and that cannot happen until all parties to the dispute feel they have had their say and that their concerns have been acknowledged. The state's public colleges and universities are as good a place as any for that discussion to proceed.

To respond to this editorial, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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