Glenn Greenwald has a good column on it; here's what seems to me the key bit:
In sum, the ugly lynch mob now assembled against Brooklyn College and its academic event is all too familiar in the US when it comes to criticism of and activism against Israeli government policy. Indeed, in the US, there are few more efficient ways to have your reputation and career as a politician or academic destroyed than by saying something perceived as critical of Israel....
But this controversy has now significantly escalated in seriousness because numerous New York City elected officials have insinuated themselves into this debate by trying to dictate to the school's professors what type of events they are and are not permitted to hold. Led by Manhattan's fanatical pro-Israel "liberal" Congressman Jerrold Nadler and two leading New York mayoral candidates - Council speaker Christine Quinn and former city comptroller William Thompson - close to two dozen prominent City officials have signed onto a letter to college President Gould pronouncing themselves "concerned that an academic department has decided to formally endorse an event that advocates strongly for one side of a highly-charged issue" and "calling for Brooklyn College's Political Science Department to withdraw their endorsement of this event." As a result, the "scandal" has now landed in The New York Times, and - for obvious reasons - the pressure on school administrators is immense.
Imagine being elected to public office and then deciding to use your time and influence to interfere in the decisions of academics about the types of campus events they want to sponsor. Does anyone have trouble seeing how inappropriate it is - how dangerous it is - to have politicians demanding that professors only sponsor events that are politically palatable to those officials? If you decide to pursue political power, you have no business trying to use your authority to pressure, cajole or manipulate college professors regarding what speakers they can invite to speak on campus.
These elected officials are cynically wrapping themselves in the banner of "academic freedom" as they wage war on that same concept. They thus argue in their letter: "by excluding alternative positions from an event they are sponsoring, the Political Science Department has actually stifled free speech by preventing honest, open debate." But if that term means anything, it means that academia is free of interference from the state when it comes to the ideas that are aired on campuses.
The danger posed by these politicians is manifest. Brooklyn College relies upon substantial grants and other forms of funding from the state. These politicians, by design, are making it mandatory for these college administrators to capitulate - to ensure that no campus events run afoul of the orthodoxies of state officials - because obtaining funding for Brooklyn College in the climate that has purposely been created is all but impossible....
That's the nature of politics in general: it requires subservience to empowered factions and majoritarian sentiment. That's what politicians do by their nature: they flatter and affirm convention. That's exactly the reason politicians have no legitimate role to play in influencing or dictating the content of academic events. It's because academia, at least in theory, has the exact opposite role: it is designed to challenge, question and subvert orthodoxies.
That value is utterly obliterated if school administrators live in fear of offending state officials. That is exactly what is happening here, by intent: making every college administrator petrified of alienating these same pro-Israel factions by making an example out of Brooklyn College. That's why anyone who values academic freedom and independence - regardless of one's views of the BDS movement - should be deeply offended and alarmed, as well as mobilized, by what is being done here.
The primary defense being offered by these would-be censors - we just want both sides of the issue to be included in this event - is patently disingenuous. In his lengthy email exchange with me yesterday - printed in full here - Dershowitz told me that his objections were not to the holding of the event itself, but to the sponsorship of it by the Political Science Department, especially given the lack of any BDS opponents. For those reasons, Dershowitz claims, "it is crystal clear that the political science department's co-sponsorship and endorsement of these extremist speakers does constitute an endorsement of BDS."
But nobody proves the disingenuousness of this excuse more than Dershowitz himself. Like the BDS movement, Dershowitz is a highly controversial and polarizing figure who inspires intense animosity around the world. That's due to many reasons, including his defense of virtually every Israeli attack, his advocacy of "torture warrants" whereby courts secretly authorize state torture, his grotesque attempt to dilute what a "civilian" is and replace it with "the continuum of civilianality" in order to justify Israeli aggression, and his chronic smearing of Israel critics such as author Alice Walker as "bigots".
Despite how controversial he is, Dershowitz routinely appears on college campuses to speak without opposition. Indeed, as the Gawker writer who writes under the pen name Mobutu Sese Seko first documented, Dershowitz himself has spoken at Brooklyn College on several occasions without opposition. That includes - as the college's Political Science Professor Corey Robin noted - when he was chosen by the school's Political Science department to deliver the Konefsky lecture in which he spoke at length - and without opposition. He also delivered a 2008 speech at Brooklyn College, alone, in which he discussed a wide variety of controversial views, including torture. As Professor Robin noted, when Dershowitz agreed to speak at the school, "he didn't insist that we invite someone to rebut him or to represent the opposing view."
Nor did any of the New York City politicians objecting to this BDS event as "one-sided" object to Dershowitz's speech given without opposition. Why is that?
In fact, it is incredibly common for academic departments to sponsor controversial speakers without opposition. I speak frequently at colleges and universities, and always express opinions which many people find highly objectionable. As but one example, I spoke at the University of Missouri School of Law last September, in an event sponsored by the law school itself. As this news account from the school's newspaper notes, I spoke at length about the highly controversial ideas in my last book, and that speech was followed by a panel discussion of like-minded civil liberties and civil rights advocates.
The way that happens is exactly how it happened here: a student group decides it wants to invite speakers or host an event and then seeks organizing support from one of the school's departments. That does not remotely connote departmental agreement with all or any of the ideas to be aired; it simply reflects a willingness to help students organize events they think will be beneficial. As Professor Robin told me about the BDS event: "The student group explicitly asked us if we would like to 'endorse' or 'co-sponsor' the event; we explicitly opted for 'co-sponsor.'"
I hope readers will take a moment to e-mail Brooklyn College President Gould ([email protected]) urging her to continue to stand firm for academic freedom and the First Amendment. In situations like this, academic leaders need to know that if they cave into craven politicians that will cost them standing in the academic world, and that by standing firm, as President Gould has done so far, she has earned respect and recognition for her integrity from the academic community. I would also urge all departments at Brooklyn College to join as co-sponsors of this event, as a way to make clear that the integrity of the university is at stake. (Ordinarily, I would not encourage a Philosophy Department to co-sponsor an event featuring Judith Butler, but...she does have a PhD in philosophy! And, from what I've read, she's more articulate and interesting on this topic than on most topics she writes on.)
UPDATE: Here, as a sample which anyone is free to borrow, amend etc, is what I wrote to President Gould:
Dear President Gould,
I know I speak for many in the academic community in congratulating you on your strong and principled stand in defense of academic freedom at Brooklyn College. Yours is undoubtedly the morally and legally correct posture, and I hope you will feel free to call on me and others for support in light of the campaign of political intimidation now being waged against you and your institution. You should feel free to share this correspondence, as you deem appropriate, with others.
My father, now 80, graduated from Brooklyn College more than a half-century ago, where he studied philosophy. He is as appalled by this disgraceful campaign against the College as I am.
Please remain firm in your commitment to principles central to the integrity of the academy.
Karl N. Llewellyn Professor of Jurisprudence
Director, Center for Law, Philosophy & Human Values
University of Chicago
1111 E. 60th Street
Chicago, IL 60637
ANOTHER: My father Maurice, Class of 1954 from Brooklyn College, writes: "Thank you for mentioning me. You are correct in describing me as appalled by what is taking place. Our
public forums are infested with ignoramuses whose malicious conduct would make any fascist proud."