This article about anti-Semitism on a U.S. campus is taken from the Jerusalem Post. Sent to me by a Jewish colleague, it raises a conundrum for hard-line free speech advocates like me. It’s not because I’m Jewish, but because the proper action of a University in a case like this is not completely clear. This is a fuzzy area. I’ll offer tentative opinions, but want to hear readers’ thoughts.
Click on the screenshot to read:
Yasmeen Mashayekh, the USC student under consideration, is a pro-Palestinian activist who made repeated anti-Semitic tweets, and when called out, she doubled down. Those tweets including calls to murder Jews, and her own desire to murder Jews.
Over the course of the last few weeks, a Palestinian student at the University of Southern California, Yasmeen Mashayekh, has come under intense scrutiny for her antisemitic and violent tweets, which include sentiments such as “Curse the Jews” (in Arabic), “Death to Israel and its b**ch the US,” and repeatedly expressing her “love” for US-designated terrorist organization Hamas and its members, even instructing others on how to assist the terror group online in the fight against Israel. She also celebrated violent attacks on Jews by Arabs, joking about how Jews were set on fire, and in May, Mashayekh tweeted, “I want to kill every mother****ing Zionist.”
When multiple groups drew attention to Mashayekh’s violent tweets, she doubled down, replying to the criticism with “Oh no how horrifying that I want to kill my colonizer.” She also attempted to argue that the phrase she used in Arabic meaning “curse the Jews” was simply a “Zionist” mistranslation, and in fact, she just meant “occupiers” – an explanation that left Arabic speakers of all backgrounds laughing.
Yasmeen also had a position of authority among students involving DEI:
Ironically, Mashayekh was a student senator for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, was allegedly employed by the university, and held multiple positions of leadership. Naturally, USC is now facing tremendous pressure to act, including from dozens of faculty who signed an open letter condemning Mashayekh’s comments. But instead of taking action, they issued a statement claiming they won’t share what they are doing because of “privacy concerns,” and that while they don’t support her comments, her statements are “protected speech.”
My colleague and the Jerusalem Post (the piece was an op-ed) thinks that the University may have violated the First Amendment by allowing a student to issue unprotected speech, didn’t punish her by firing her (she was removed as a DEI student senator and given a different job at the same salary), and at the very least assert that USC should have issued a statement condemning Mashayekh’s statements and affirming their support of Jews as well as denouncing anti-Semitism.
Several questions arise.
Did Mashayekh violate the First Amendment? My answer is “no.” The First Amendment allows one to call for extirpation of groups, including statements like “Gas the Jews,” and “Kill the Jews.” The only circumstances in which such calls for violence are prohibited (as construed by the courts) are when those statements are liable to cause predictable, imminent, and foreseeable harm to others. That was not the case here. Mashayekh made her statements on social media.
As a private university, USC isn’t required to abide by the First Amendment. But because it espouses free speech in its own principles, see below, it should adhere to the First Amendment and not punish Mashayekh. In fact, USC says that it does adhere to the First Amendment:
From the USC speech policy: (my emphasis):
USC has long had established policies protecting the free speech rights and academic freedom of faculty and students.
In both policy and practice, when USC faculty speak or write as citizens, they are free of institutional censorship or discipline. And academic freedom at USC protects all faculty. We vigorously defend these principles for faculty of every status and type of appointment.
. . . Our longstanding policies also declare that the University of Southern California is committed to fostering a learning environment where free inquiry and expression are encouraged and celebrated and for which all its members share responsibility. Dissent — disagreement, a difference of opinion, or thinking differently from others — is an integral aspect of expression in higher education, whether it manifests itself in a new and differing theory in quantum mechanics, a personal disagreement with a current foreign policy, opposition to a position taken by the university itself, or by some other means. The university is a diverse community based on free exchange of ideas and devoted to the use of reason and thought in the resolution of differences. The university recognizes the crucial importance of preserving First Amendment rights and maintaining open communication and dialogue in the process of identifying and resolving problems which arise in the dynamics of life in a university community.
Now the Jerusalem Post quotes Alan Dershowitz saying there was a violation here:
Even under the US Constitution, Mashayekh’s comments are not protected speech. Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz stated unequivocally that the comment about killing Zionists “is not protected speech for a university student,” and argued that should USC do nothing, they could be subject to losing federal funding.
I think he’s wrong, even though he’s a real lawyer and I just play one on television.
Should Mashayekh be banned from social media? According to their own principles, they can indeed ban her. Whether they should do so is a complex question, for I also think that social media should adhere to the First Amendment as far as possible. But since they have the right to ban her, they can and should because her words violate their policies. What the real policies should be is above my pay grade. But the Jerusalem Post goes further, saying that Mashayekh’s statements violate other aspects of USC policy:
First, according to social media hate speech standards, Mashayekh’s comments are absolutely a violation of Twitter’s hate speech policies. Second, at USC, codes of conduct for university students prohibit expressing an intent to “kill” a minority group. For example, Mashayekh’s comments clearly violate the policy on prohibited discrimination, harassment and retaliation, which states, “the University prohibits discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, ethnicity, religion (including religious dress and grooming practices), creed… political belief or affiliation… and any other class of individuals protected from discrimination under federal, state, or local law, regulation, or ordinance (Protected Characteristics).”
The link to the quote is wrong in the paragraph above; the words are correct but the USC policy is here. However, spewing hatred on social media does not constitute “discrimination,” “harassment” (which is meant to apply to individuals, not to groups), or “retaliation” (hateful words are not a form of retaliation, as they are not directed towards individuals who harmed Mashayekh). The miscreant was giving her opinion not on campus or at work, but on social media.
Should Mashayekh be fired from her student job? I think USC did the right thing in transferring her to a different job at the same pay. In that way there was no retaliation, but her hateful behavior was not upholding the tenets of her position and therefore she did not deserve to continue on as a DEI counselor.
Should USC have condemned Mashayekh by naming her? Once again my answer is “no.” She did not violate USC’s speech codes, which are the First Amendment, and therefore condemnation by name or implication is a form of retaliation.
Should USC have called for tolerance and amity towards Jews? Here I had to stop and think. But since a divided campus with warring factions of students is not conducive to the function of a University, then yes, I think USC should have reaffirmed its principles of civility, respect, and comity. Everybody would know what this is about. The only other question is whether they should have mentioned the Jews. This is a two edged sword, for if you just issue a general call for peace, it will offend the group who is seeking redress—the Jewish students, who would ignored or given lower status. On the other hand, if you mention that there is anti-Jewish rancor that impedes the University’s well-being, then all other groups, including Palestinans, will say “Well, why don’t you mention us when there’s anti-Palestinian sentiment?” And they have a point.
However, given the degree of anti-Semitism at USC and how it was inflamed by Mashayekh’s statements, I do think that mentioning the Jewish students as a particular target in a University statement is warranted, and the right thing to do. That doesn’t mean that everyone should always get such call-outs, as it really depends on the degree of division at the time. A stingle student who complains, for example, does not warrant a University statement calling for people to be nice to him/her.
Whether you agree or not, weigh in below.