Unlimited Access. Try it Today! Your First 10 Days Always $0.99
News Opinion Editorial

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
Related Content
  • Israel has acted responsibly against Hamas [Letter]
    Israel has acted responsibly against Hamas [Letter]

    The recent letter writer critical of Israeli actions in Gaza ("Israel committed war crimes during its invasion of Gaza," Oct. 1) conveniently forgets the origins of the Gaza conflict and the effort that Israel made to reduce civilian casualties. Hamas for the last eight years has been firing...

  • Hopkins is hypocritical on academic freedom
    Hopkins is hypocritical on academic freedom

    On Sept. 26, an interdisciplinary cohort of students, faculty and staff at Johns Hopkins University answered President Ronald Daniel's call to join the conversation on academic freedom, which he wrote, "deserves dialogue and debate" ("Hopkins welcomes debate on academic freedom," Feb. 26)....

  • Why isn't Israel joining the fight against ISIS?
    Why isn't Israel joining the fight against ISIS?

    President Barack Obama's ISIS war plan includes seeking support from Arab nations and others in the battle in Iraq and Syria, but why is Israel sitting the war out when both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and our government have proclaimed Israel to be our staunchest ally? Is it too much for...

  • Why African-Americans don't support Israel
    Why African-Americans don't support Israel

    Unfortunately, many African Americans as well as the general population do not support Israel because of a lack of knowledge about the origins and the history of the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors ("Why aren't more African Americans supporting Israel?" Oct. 20).

  • Why Israel isn't rushing to fight ISIS
    Why Israel isn't rushing to fight ISIS

    Letter writer Fred Lebert asks why Israel hasn't joined the fight against ISIS ("Why isn't Israel joining the fight against ISIS?" Oct. 21).

  • Act of terrorism ignored
    Act of terrorism ignored

    It is deplorable that The Sun, which was so out front depicting the casualties and damage this summer in Gaza during the war started by Hamas, decided to bury news of the murder of a Jewish baby (and American citizen) by a Palestinian terrorist in Jerusalem at the bottom of Page 8 ("Baby killed...

  • GOP Senate would support Israel
    GOP Senate would support Israel

    The hostile comments from the Obama administration toward Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu show a terrible glimpse of what two more years of a Democratic-run U.S. Senate would be like ("Netanyahu fumes at U.S. official's reported profane insult," Oct. 30). The stakes could not be...

  • Tragedy in Jerusalem
    Tragedy in Jerusalem

    There can be no excuse, no explanation, no reasoned or even plausible justification for the horrific attack on a Jerusalem synagogue Tuesday that left four rabbis and an Israeli police officer dead. The assailants, two Palestinian militants armed with axes, meat cleavers and a gun who entered...