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Free Speech, Unless You're Advocating for Palestine

CNN's firing of Marc Lamont Hill highlights the ongoing silencing of pro-Palestinian voices in American life.
Marc Lamont Hill moderating a panel at the Paley Center for Media on December 7th, 2016, in New York City.

Marc Lamont Hill moderating a panel at the Paley Center for Media on December 7th, 2016, in New York City.

At the end of November, CNN commentator and Temple University professor Marc Lamont Hill went to the United Nations to speak at the International Day of Solidarity With the Palestinian People. His speech argued that Israel's treatment of Palestinians violates the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Hill said that, although "we must advocate and promote non-violence ... we cannot endorse a narrow politics of respectability that shames Palestinians for resisting." He concluded by saying, "We have an opportunity to not just offer solidarity in words, but to commit to ... action that will give us what justice requires, and that is a free Palestine, from the river to the sea."

Those last six words got him fired from CNN and, at least briefly, placed his tenured job at Temple—a publicly funded university that receives over $160 million from Pennsylvania per year—in jeopardy.

CNN can hire or fire whomever they like. There are, of course, plenty of people who have worked for CNN while expressing much more extreme positions on any number of issues than anything Hill said. Still, the phrase "from the river to the sea" is, in fact, an incendiary one: Hill's critics have argued that calling for a free Palestine from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea is an expression of support for the extermination of Israel. Journalist Josh Marshall, though, noted on social media that the "river to the sea" formulation is, in fact, a maximalist phase used by both sides to claim total control over all the territory in the region. For example, in 2015, Tzipi Hotovely, Israel's deputy foreign minister, clearly rejected a two-state solution when she asserted: "This entire land is ours. All of it, from the [Mediterranean] Sea to the [Jordan] River, and we are not here to apologize for this."

Hill has apologized for his use of the phrase and clarified that he advocates a return to 1967 borders and the creation of "a single, bi-national, democratic state that encompasses Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza."

Unless CNN is only permitting two-state solutions to be debated on its programs, firing Hill was a mistake—but it is well within the company's rights as a commercial enterprise to do so. Temple University, though, is a public institution governed by both the principles of academic freedom and the First Amendment's guarantee of a right to free speech. Yet the chairman of Temple's board of directors, Patrick O'Connor (a lawyer) decried Hill's U.N. speech, saying: "No one at Temple is happy with his comments. Free speech is one thing. Hate speech is entirely different." O'Connor added, "People wanted to fire him right away. We're going to look at what remedies we have."

The notion that a tenured professor's career could be put in jeopardy because of an ill-considered phrase concluding an otherwise nuanced speech at the U.N. violates every notion of academic freedom that we have. Yes, it is possible for professors to cross a line with speech that makes it impossible to do their job, but that bar is extraordinarily high and still requires intense due process to demonstrate a lack of potential amelioration. Conceptions of a one-state or two-state solution that fall short of endorsing ethnic cleansing (or even violence at all) seem well within the confines of acceptable speech from professors—or, indeed, from pundits.

As an American Jew, someone with strong but internally conflicting opinions about the place of Israel, in my heart and in the broad gaze of history, I have long been troubled by how, in America, statements or positions deemed too pro-Palestinian can so quickly lead us to abandon our principles of free speech. This is especially true on college campuses, allegedly hubs of free and robust debate. In 2014, I extensively covered the "un-hiring" of Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois–Urbana Champaign. Salaita was hired as a tenured professor at Illinois, resigned his position at Virginia Tech, and prepared to move to the Midwest. His contract contained boilerplate language indicating that the new position was subject to review by the board of trustees—a pro forma vote set for September of that year, weeks after Salaita would have started teaching. Instead, war broke out that summer between Israel and Palestine, and Salaita tweeted several angry and incendiary statements about Israel. The mainstream media picked up the statements from right-wing blogs and turned them into a national story. Chris Kennedy, then chair of the Illinois Board of Regents, voiced his disapproval of Salaita, and led the way to formally un-hire Salaita that September. Salaita sued and eventually settled for $875,000. Based on conversations I've had with many different faculty members at the university, morale within the humanities programs has never really recovered. (Disclosure: My brother was, at the time, an associate dean at Illinois.)

In the aftermath of Salaita's un-hiring, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the non-profit organization Palestinian Legal collaborated on a report entitled "The Palestinian Exception to Free Speech." In the report, it detailed 300 incidents in which campus authorities, often pushed by powerful donors and politicians in the United States and Israel, attempted or succeeded in suppressing pro-Palestinian speech. The report is supported by a white paper from Jewish Voice for Peace, which identified similar patterns of suppression. One common strategy for chilling pro-Palestinian speech, per these reports, is to condemn statements supporting broad Palestinian rights as akin to supporting "terrorism." We saw the same pattern play out in the ruckus over Hill's U.N. speech. Ultimately, Temple's board took no formal action beyond formally condemning Hill on Tuesday. Even that is a mistake, though—one wonders what other speech the board will be called on to condemn, or whether its members consider extraordinary measures only in the case of Palestine.

The principle of academic freedom only matters if it applies to speech with which we disagree. The First Amendment right to free speech at a public university is even more powerful, supported by hundreds of years of jurisprudence enshrined in one of the most important passages in the Bill of Rights. CNN, a commercial venture, can do what it likes and will be judged by its viewers based on the quality of those decisions. Temple University, and academe in general, must be held to a higher standard. Even though the board didn't try to fire Hill, it never should have gotten involved, except to affirm its support for academic freedom.