A state university disinvites an anti-Semite

January 20, 2020 • 9:30 am

It’s a test of your adherence to free speech if you can stand up for the rights of speakers whose message you despise. And this is one case, as reported on December 24 in the Los Angeles Times (click on screenshot below).

San Diego State, a public university in California, gave $170,000 to four of its graduate students to develop programs to help the university’s black students. One of the funded students, Terry Sivers, used his allotment of $68,000 to develop a conference on reparations for slavery, a controversial but current topic. But it became even more controversial when Sivers drew up a list of speakers and vetted them to the University. As the Times reports:

The speakers ranged from the renowned author Ta-Nehisi Coates to Ava Muhammad, a controversial minister and author who also speaks to students nationally on behalf of Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam.

Farrakhan has been accused of anti-Semitism by such organizations as the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Muhammad has drawn criticism from the Anti-Defamation League, which said in 2017 that she had referred to Jewish people as “godless” and that she had been “loudly sharing anti-Semitic conspiracy theories” espoused by Farrakhan.

And indeed, here’s Ava Muhammad spouting some pretty vile things about the Jews:


Note that the list of speakers was approved by the university when it gave Sivers the money, so it might as well have been considered an invitation. But then Muhammad’s potential presence came to the University’s attention:

It quickly turned into an “uh-oh” moment when some of the school’s faculty pointed out that one of the speakers has been accused of anti-Semitism — news that spilled onto social media, causing an uproar.

The summit still might happen. But SDSU quietly announced Monday that the student has revised the speakers list to avoid “those who have espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past.”

The problem “should have been caught much, much earlier,” said Peter Herman, an SDSU literature professor who brought the controversy to light last week in a local newspaper.

“This shows that the committees, faculty and administrators who approved this proposal either did so without vetting the summit’s speakers or they did the vetting and approved them anyway,” he said. “At the very least, they were irresponsible.”

The university says it thoughtfully considered the matter and took appropriate action. But campus emails and a newsletter show that SDSU — like universities nationwide — found itself grappling with a tough question:

How do we preserve free speech while minimizing the chances that someone will purposefully denigrate others?

Answer: You let the person speak if they’re already invited. And you don’t shy away from inviting anybody who might offend someone. 

After Herman’s objection, the University responded this way:

Herman contacted SDSU administrators on Dec. 19 by email and asked about the wisdom of having Muhammad on the list.

He also told administrators that he was writing a story for the Times of San Diego and asked if they wanted to comment “on the appropriateness of student fees funding such speakers.

“Should people who espouse hate be invited to speak at SDSU?” he asked.

SDSU officials responded by emailing Herman that the speakers for the proposed summit had not been confirmed. Then they delivered a message that highlighted the complex and contradictory nature of the issue:

“In some cases, speakers may be invited to speak on a specific topic of interest despite having viewpoints in other areas that are not in alignment with the values and beliefs of our community,” SDSU said in the email.

“This does not mean, however, that speech intended to denigrate or dehumanize others based on their backgrounds or social identities is consistent with SDSU’s values — which it is not.”

Here we have the University claiming that Muhammad’s prior speech was unacceptable because it was in effect “hate speech”, even though she might not (and probably not) have gone after the Jews in her talk. But so what if she did? If she’s speaking about reparations, at least some of what she said would have been worth hearing, even if the listener rejected her views. What is everyone afraid of?

Yes, anti-Semitism is vile, and Muhammad’s views—at least those expressed above—are especially vile. But they won’t disappear if they’re suppressed, and perhaps students should hear the kind of anti-Semitism that’s inherent in the Nation of Islam.

But that wasn’t the view of the University, who apparently had a quiet word with Sivers resulting in a “revision” of the speakers list and the deep-sixing of anti-Semites:

A couple of hours later, SDSU issued a new statement, saying the issue had largely been resolved, without adding a lot of specifics.

“We understand recent concerns about a student-led proposal approved for Student Success Fee (SSF) funding,” SDSU said. “The student (Sivers) has since opted to revise the program, and those speakers will not be confirmed to speak at SDSU. The university supports the student’s decision.”

SDSU added: “The student’s proposed speaker list previously included those who have espoused anti-Semitic rhetoric in the past. We strongly reject anti-Semitic, and other disparaging messages and actions. SDSU will offer support to the student organizer to ensure that the original basis for the event — a critical exploration of slavery and reparations — can proceed.”

I can only imagine what they told Sivers. It was probably something like, “You haven’t gotten the money yet, so you’d better cross off the hate speakers if you want it.”

Now if Sivers called for immediate violence against the Jews, and not just another Holocaust in general, that would have been grounds to ban her. But I doubt she would have done that: even at SDSU the students probably wouldn’t have tolerated the blatant anti-Semitism evinced by Muhammad above.

So what we have is prior censorship based on a speaker’s earlier remarks—in effect, a disinvitation. And I oppose that disinvitation, even as I oppose anti-Semitism. The way to deal with someone like Muhammad is first to listen to what she says—without disrupting or deplatforming her—and then offer counterspeech if she spews anti-Semitism.

Why would we want to hear someone like her speak? John Stuart Mill summarized it in On Liberty:  if your enemy espouses vile arguments, you should let them espouse, for such people reveal themselves as haters. Each generation must learn anew how anti-Semitic the Nation of Islam is, regardless of the help it gives black people. And if Muhammad offers arguments against Jews, well, you’d better know what they are, because they’re held by many Black Muslims, and you must be able to counter them. Finally, Muhammad surely would have addressed the topic of reparations, and since that is a valid issue for discussion, regardless of your feelings about it, it would have been worthwhile to hear what she said.

Now, though, the students at SDSU won’t. Thanks to their paternalistic administration, they are protecting against any views that might offend them—or stimulate their thinking.

If the University already approved the list of speakers, they have no right to go back and redact it. They didn’t have to approve the list, nor did Sivers have to invite Muhammad. But once it was a fait accompli, retracting an invitation is equivalent to censorship by a government organization. Or so I see it.

45 thoughts on “A state university disinvites an anti-Semite

  1. Now if Sivers called for immediate violence against the Jews, and not just another Holocaust in general, that would have been grounds to ban her.

    If we’re applying the First Amendment standard articulated by SCOTUS in Brandenburg v. Ohio, to ban such speech, it must not merely call for immediate lawless action; it must also be “likely to incite or produce such action” under the circumstances.

    1. Agree with your take on this. There are IF’s in everything. If they had already vetted, or maybe if it is determined the cost of policing this speaker invite is more than they can afford.

      Look at the gun happy folks having a big get together in Richmond. The governor had declared an emergency to bring in enough help to police that one. Some of the people just standing around waiting are locked and loaded. Is free speech worth this. For the sake of free speech, let the bullets fly.

      1. The Brandenburg test recognizes that there’s a big difference between saying something to a roomful of snot-nosed college kids and saying the same thing to torch-wielding Brown Shirts in the streets of the Jewish Quarter on Kristallnacht (or maybe even to saying it to tiki-torch bearing neo-Nazis at the “Unite the Right” rally in the streets of Charlottesville).

  2. Being a grown up is hard. But it is a mark of maturity that you can make hard decisions, such as defending free speech.

  3. On the subject of free speech, John Milton wrote the following in his work titled “Areopagitica”. It expresses his vision of England if liberated from the stifling forces of proposed Puritan censorship. His famous phrase is “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks; methinks I see her as an eagle mewing her mighty youth, and kindling her undazzled eyes at the full midday beam.”

    The following further explanation is taken from enotes.com.

    Context: Although Milton had long been one of the most passionate and articulate defenders of Puritanism, he could not agree when the revolutionary Puritan Parliament, on June 14, 1643, ordered that no book, pamphlet, or paper should be printed without a license from the proper authorities. Milton believed implicitly in the individual nature of the search for truth and in the necessity for freedom of speech and conscience. He recognized that such freedoms would, of course, produce differences of opinion. This speech, addressed to Parliament and cast into the form of a classical oration, is Milton’s response to the Parliamentary order and is a world-famous defense of freedom of the press. He first demonstrates that none of the great classical states had engaged in such repressive measures and then shows that censorship was invented by the Catholic Church, to the Puritans the greatest symbol of error and heresy. To the often repeated argument that difference of opinions breeds the dangers of sect and schism Milton replies that in their very ability to tolerate such differences and resolve them into truth lies the strength of the English people.

    1. There’s a story that he even managed to visit one of the most famous prisoners of conscience ever – Galileo – and that influenced the work. I think the consensus is now that it is likely a myth, but …

  4. The only safe space we need in a university is the space to freely express and debate ideas.
    Having controversial speakers of a large range of viewpoints should itself be noncontroversial, routine even.

    That was certainly the case when I was at university. There were always notices up about speakers or programs or films being presented that pushed all sorts of boundaries. You either chose to attend, or not. I know I sometimes went just to be entertained.
    The very concept of whether someone should be “allowed” to speak never came up. It would have been an absurd argument.

    Lots of people these days have the view that anything one does not actively oppose, one can be seen as advocating. I think that is a wrongheaded and dangerous idea.

  5. Consistent with my principles as applied previously, this person deserves to speak. In fact, considering that this is a public university, I don’t think the university should even be allowed to “vet” the speaker and decide whether or not they’re appropriate, beyond simply determining that they pass the relevant tests for being allowed to speak under the First Amendment. The funds were given to this student to invite a speaker of his choosing, and he chose this one. End of story. It seems to me that it’s not just the speaker’s free speech being curtailed here, but the student’s as well, as inviting speakers is itself an exercise/extension of free speech.

    1. I suppose some people look at the first amendment’s free speech the same way other look at the second amendment. First question would be, you know that the free speech thing is a protection to you from the government, right? It does not say you get to speak anywhere at any venue under all conditions and the government will rush in and protect you. I just wondered because that is how it sounds.

      1. I think the case has been that first amendment free speech rights are widely applied to protections other than from the government. There is the letter, and then there is the accepted application of this right.

        1. Widely applied is a good way to put it. All of the amendments, particularly those first 10 were to be restrictions on government. You know, things the government would not do to you. But the idea that the government would be out riding around, ready to pounce on anyone or anything that interfered with you. It is kind of laughable.

          Just as people and the court have mangled the second amendment, people are doing a pretty good job with the first as well.

      2. A state university is an arm of the government and, therefore, subject to the strictures of the First Amendment.

        A state university is not a general purpose public forum (as is, say, a street parade or a public park), but where a university permits student organizations to invite speakers, it creates a “designated public forum” subject to First Amendment protections — as to both the speaker’s freedom to speak and the students’ freedom to listen.

        1. That is all fine and good but it obviously is not working in that way. The remedy is in the court as they say, not in the public institution. I would be happy if we just had a congress that worked but we don’t. Should we install a team of legal scholars in every state university to uphold free speech?

          1. It seems to me it already has been remedied in the courts. The problem is that the schools aren’t following the law. Schools are, as Ken said, part of the government, and the government cannot curb the right to free speech in public forums.

  6. Indeed. If someone is a jerk, let them speak and then take the piss out of them.

    See Nick Griffin on Question Time – and where are the BNP now?

  7. I know I am going to be called out, but here goes. Have at it.

    There are the Miltonesque ideals of allowing offensive free speech, but there is the very messy problem of applying those ideals amongst a public that has to pay for it. First there is the possible cost from having this event after much negative publicity, where there is plenty of time to stir up a large and uncontrollable population to where some are inspired to mob violence. There is the cost of having a university pay the high cost of security, and for them to possibly pay for other legal and medical costs. Lawsuits can be very expensive, and those have to be passed on to somewhere. There is the cost that after all this publicity that various donors to the university will pull their money, which is their right, thereby strapping programs and pulling away salaries needed by faculty and staff. We can pronounce Miltonesque ideals, but then there can be the large and small tragedies that ordinary people have to pay for them. And not everyone effected will even heard of Milton.

    1. We do allow offensive speech. The internet is full of it, and Muhammad and her ilk have lots of speaking opportunities. The real question is whether any organization is obligated to provide a platform. In principle, I think not, even if the organization is a public one. The mission of a college is education, not to be a speaker’s platform. Speakers may be part of that education mission, but if they do not further it, or even impede it, they should not expect to speak.

      The complicating factor here is that the speaker was already invited, and the organization, with new information, wants a do-over. In principle, I do not see why they shouldn’t get a do-over, but I am open to arguments.

    2. You won’t get much argument from me. Nothing is absolute no matter what, including this amendment. We think we have separation of church and state but if you look inside our government today it has church influence all over it. Others think the second amendment gives them the right to carry their weapons anywhere through the middle of town. Just like the movies in the wild west. The idea that we should not have heavily regulated control of weapons in a country where 80 percent of the people live packed into cities is more than crazy. Just last night two police were shot and killed in Hawaii, two people were killed in Kansas City and two more were killed in another city I can’t remember. More guns please.

      1. More guns solve everything. Yes, indeedy.
        What I am mulling over is the seemingly poor fit between the Milton ideals of free speech, versus the volatility of crowds and folks who import themselves into an event to make trouble.
        Offensive speech between people who agree to talk – no problem. Offensive speech where voices are raised and tempers lost? Let it happen. How about if the speech genuinely upsets people? Or if it even traumatizes some people? That becomes very difficult, but I want to say it should still be allowed.
        But speech that could realistically lead to the fall-out I describe above seems to be like a square peg versus round hole. So I am held up on that right now.

    3. I think the tax argument can be applied, but around here it seems that the values the SDSU speak of would be key. It could very well be a Swedish university:

      “Freedom of expression – and also freedom of information, ie the right to freely collect and receive information and otherwise take note of the opinions of others – according to Chapter 2. § 1 The form of government may, like other positive freedom of opinion, except religious freedom, be limited by law or, by special authority in law, by other constitution. Examples of interests that actually give freedom of expression and information restricted are public order and security, the reputation of the individual and the prevention and prosecution of crimes (chapters 2, 20 and 23 of the Government form, and also see, for example, the criminal law regulation on slander in Chapter 5. 1–2 sections of the criminal code).” [ https://www.regeringen.se/49bb4c/contentassets/1df0c81fa73d4f878c9eba10c744b0a7/den-gemensamma-vardegrunden-for-de-statsanstallda-s2013.011 + Google Translate.]

      (I note religious freedom has no restrictions here, likely due to EU law – there is a similar exception for religious schooling in that since 1957.)

      “The university is an authority that is to apply the principle of publicity, which means that documents that exist with the authority are, as a rule, public and must be disclosed to the person requesting access to them. Restrictions are made for work materials (work in progress) and classified information. However, disseminating public or other documents via an electronic medium such as YELLOW is accompanied by further considerations.

      The Personal Data Regulation restricts the right to disseminate information on persons and copyright rules without consent limits the ability to disseminate works (in the form of texts, images, sounds) without consent. There are also limitations with reference to criminal offenses such as slander, incitement to ethnic groups, illegal depictions of violence etc.”
      [ https://gul.gu.se/public/courseId/40328/lang-en/publicPage.do?item=16824955 + Google Translate.]

      1. A film featuring a nun and a lonely goatherd? The custodians of the Hays Code must have been asleep at the wheel.

  8. Perhaps the more interesting question than what should spineless academic administrators do to protect free speech, is to ask the question about the long-term significance of the rise of “ethnic studies” or “grievance studies” to communities of Jews living in the United States.

    While some Jews may have an ambivalent or even hostile relationship to “whiteness” (Susan Sontag comes to mind), it is striking that many PoC view Jews as not only “white”, but one might say, paradigmatically “white.” “Uber-white” so to speak. Thus, two audiences interpret the same message two ways, the NOI acolyte and the lesbian rabbi happily clapping along to the same speech.

    The question that is never asked when the speaker says that they seek to abolish “whiteness” is whether they seek to abolish “Jewishness”, which would presumably include abolishing a State based on Jewish identity. (Jews are the whitest religious denomination in the United States, so it would seem to be a fair question on its face.) Of course, it will not be asked, because it would bring the contradiction to the surface.

    Most of the post-colonial regimes (from which this critique of “whiteness” has been appropriated), such Algeria or Zimbabwe, did not distinguish Jews from their European brethren, and were just as heavy-handed in their treatment of Jews as any other blanco.

    If things stay on the current track, third- worlder ethnonarcissism, it is likely Ava Muhammad will be the new norm, not an aberration. Further, calling a community “godless… blood-sucking parasites [that] sell us alcohol, drugs, depraved sex, and every other type of low-life thing” is not an argument. Its racial invective. Its what replaces argument and empirical evidence when the former is dismissed as “white supremacy,” and ethnonarcissism comes to power. “You can’t understand, its a Palestinian thing.”

    Rather than worrying about group feelings or whether someone is a “hater”, perhaps it is time to demand speakers make logical arguments and buttress them with empirical evidence, First Amendment or not, even the self-proclaimed “sacred victims” of intersectionality.

  9. My view will perhaps be controversial to some readers at this site. I believe the guest should be allowed to speak because the benefits of free speech outweigh the risks. My concern is that advocates of free speech ignore the real possibility that invidious viewpoints could sway more people than counterarguments. Implicit in the defense of almost unbridled free speech is the faith (a word I used purposely) that bad views will be rejected if all views are allowed to be presented. But, what is the evidence for this? Hitler gained power largely by persuasion (even granting that his bully boys resorted to violence). Trump created his cult through his rhetoric, assisted by decades of right wing propaganda.

    To repeat, I support free speech, including allowing that guest to speak on campus. Without free speech, we would see the end of democracy. On the other hand, democracy could plant its own seeds of destruction with unfettered free speech. No matter how you come down on this issue, the stakes are high and the outcome uncertain.

    1. When someone, like our president would lock up or shut down most of the free press in the country, I am standing for free speech as well. But I am not personally going to run out and demonstrate for some questionable person to speak in a school somewhere. According to the free press today, our president has lied or put out false information 16,000 times in the last 3 years. The people are getting very use to bad information as it flows from the mouths of our so-called leaders. We have lots of free speech these days.

  10. I submit that some disinvitations are correct in terms, not of constitutional language, but simple intellectual reputability. SDSU is a
    University, not Hyde Park, and has a right to maintain standards of simple factuality. On this basis, speakers representing the Flat Earth Society or the Church of Scientology would certainly be subject to disinvitation, as would the Nation of Islam. Speakers for these cults are free to blather all they like in the park, but Universities are under no obligation to offer them sounding boards.

    1. I think they are, if they are government institutions. Private schools are subject to less scrutiny in this regard. But SDSU is, as the letters say, a state university.

      1. I believe public universities cannot limit the content of speech by students, staff and invited speakers. They certainly do not have an obligation to invite a particular speaker. As Ken Kukec points out in 6 above, when a public university allows students or staff to invite speakers, it creates a designated public forum for invited speakers. As such, the university cannot prevent invited speakers from expressing their viewpoints no matter how unpopular they may be, nor I suppose limit the discussion in the forum. The question is, can invited speakers be disinvited? I don’t know that this is settled law, but I am sure Ken will chime in if it is.

        1. When they disinvite someone they limit their student’s, faculty, and staff rights. They are a public institution and are limiting the public’s right to express ideas because they don’t like the content. That’s government censorship.

        2. To my knowledge, there is no binding Supreme Court precedent directly on point regarding the First Amendment implications of a public university barring invited speakers. But there is uncontradicted lower court precedent prohibiting a public university from doing so. See, e.g., Brooks v. Auburn University (5th Cir. 1969).

    2. I have to disagree strongly. I was a T.A. for a university class designed to teach archaeology students about pseudo scientific theories, the psychologies behind them, and how to detect them.
      Each term, we invited speakers who were advocates for and recognized authorities on issues like Atlantis, flat earth theory, and particularly pre-Columbian ocean migration. Those speakers were invited to speak in university forums open to students and the public. In each case, the format was that the speaker was allowed to present their views or “research”, and there was a question/answer period after. Usually, there was an opportunity to have books signed as well. It was never an ambush debate situation.

      I think an alternate religion lecture series with a Scientologist or Raelian would be pretty interesting.

      If the students or staff start smashing things or hurting people after hearing such a presentation, or are willing to do so to prevent the presentation being given, then someone has done a poor job educating those students and staff.

  11. Here we have the University claiming that Muhammad’s prior speech was unacceptable because it was in effect “hate speech”, even though she might not (and probably not) have gone after the Jews in her talk. But so what if she did? If she’s speaking about reparations, at least some of what she said would have been worth hearing, even if the listener rejected her views.

    This is of fundamental importance IMO. The Woke do not seek to censor speech, they seek to censor speakers for past speech.

    Just because she is an anti-semite, does not mean Ava Muhammad doesn’t have interesting views on reparations. I it the case that she should never be allowed to speak in public ever again on any subject? I take the view that this would be wrong.

    1. I agree. There’s even the possibility – however small – that in some public forum at some time in the future, she might encounter responses to her statements that actually change HER mind.

  12. There’s a belief among a growing number of African-Americans that the ancient Israelites were black and that Jewish people are pretenders stealing their cultural heritage. This is not confined to a small group of dangerous crackpots like the Black Hebrew Israelite cult. Google “fake Jews” and see what comes up. I’m curious if there are any university grievance studies departments teaching this.

  13. It’s not clear to me from the LA Times article whether she had actually been invited, or was just on a student’s list of people to invite. This may seem a technical matter, but I think it makes a difference. Before an actual invitation is made, it’s legitimate for there to be discussions about who to invite. If the Pre-Health Club came to me and said they wanted to invite Andrew Wakeman, I’d discourage them; if they’d already booked him, then I would not support canceling his appearance.

  14. The problem “should have been caught much, much earlier,” said Peter Herman

    I agree! But I think he’s got the wrong problem. The problem here is not necessarily the speaker’s anti-Semitism, it’s that being the spokesperson for the Nation of Islam doesn’t mean squat in terms of being knowledgeable or an interesting speaker on any topic, except perhaps the topic ‘the Nation of Islam’ itself.
    I’m all for speaker series’ inviting speakers with a range of opinion, including controversial opinions. But being controversial in itself /= good. Carl Sagan’s notion “the fact that some geniuses are laughed at doesn’t mean everyone who is laughed at is a genius” comes to mind. It applies to controversial speakers too – merely being controversial doesn’t necessarily imply a speaker is worth hearing. Ms. Williams is one I’d skip, and if I were a faculty reviewer of the speaker list, I’d certainly ask the proposer “what viewpoint does she add?”

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