Is Free Speech Really Free?

Taking stances can cost one a job

Doxxing truck, source: Harvard Crimson

As anti-Israel forces on and off campuses continue to protest, some employers are launching counterprotests of their own – firing or refusing to hire those who go public with pro-Palestine stances. The trend reflects an unsettling truism about free speech: it may be anything but “free,” as speakers have to live with the consequences.

Take, for instance, the cases of two global law firms – New York-based Davis, Polk & Wardwell and Chicago-based Winston & Strawn. Davis Polk revoked job offers to three law students at Columbia and Harvard because they were leaders in student organizations that had backed letters blaming Israel for Hamas’s savage Oct. 7 attacks. Similarly, Winston & Strawn revoked an offer to an NYU student, the former president of the school’s University Bar Association, who had written a message to the group, saying “Israel bears full responsibility for this tremendous loss of life.”

Neil Barr, chair and managing partner of Davis Polk, told The New York Times that the firm did not want to employ anyone who endorsed the Hamas atrocities.

“The views expressed in certain of the statements signed by law school student organizations in recent days are in direct contravention of our firm’s value system,” the firm said in a statement. To ensure that “we continue to maintain a supportive and inclusive work environment, the student leaders responsible for signing on to these statements are no longer welcome in our firm.”

Davis Polk noted that in two of the cases, it was considering reversing course and hiring them because they said they had not endorsed the criticism of Israel. The letters blaming Israel for Hamas’s attack did not include individual names. It’s not clear what the law firm knew or didn’t know about the students, other than that they were leaders in the group or groups that backed the statements.

Ryna Workman, source: ABC News

As for the NYU student who lost an offer at Winston & Strawn, that person has doubled down on the criticism of Israel. Ryna Workman, who appeared on ABC defending Palestine and criticizing Israel, was caught on camera covering up posters of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas with pro-Palestine signs. Appallingly, Workman repeatedly ducked questions about whether she – or “they” as Workman prefers – had any empathy for Israeli victims.

Workman was ousted by NYU law school Dean Troy McKenzie as head of the student bar association. Other members of the group had quickly distanced themselves from Workman, saying they mourned “the tremendous loss of human life,” while sidestepping any specific condemnation of Hamas. Subsequently, all members of the association quit, saying they feared for their safety, and the group disbanded.

As many American business leaders remain horrified by the Hamas atrocities, some say they will refuse to hire students who take stances similar to Workman’s. Some major Wall Street investors, including hedge fund chief William Ackman, have called on companies to blacklist members of groups that have taken pro-Hamas stances. Ackman, a Harvard graduate, also demanded that Harvard release the names of such students.

As reported by Forbes, Ackman tweeted that “a number of CEOs” approached him, asking for the student names to ensure “none of us inadvertently hire any of their members.” One CEO, Jonathan Neman of the healthy fast casual chain Sweetgreen, responded to Ackman’s post on X, saying he “would like to know so I know never to hire these people,” to which healthcare services company EasyHealth CEO David Duel responded: “Same.”

David Velasco, source: ArtReview

Still other outfits have canned those who refused to condemn Hamas or backed Palestinians. Artforum fired its top editor, David Velasco, after a call for a ceasefire, signed by thousands of artists, appeared on the publication’s website.

“We support Palestinian liberation and call for an end to the killing and harming of all civilians, an immediate ceasefire, the passage of humanitarian aid into Gaza, and the end of the complicity of our governing bodies in grave human rights violations and war crimes,” the letter said.

As reported by ARTNews, a sister publication, Artforum publishers Danielle McConnell and Kate Koza in a statement wrote, “On Thursday, October 19, an open letter regarding the crisis in the Middle East was shared on Artforum’s website and social platforms without our, or the requisite senior members of the editorial team’s, prior knowledge. This was not consistent with Artforum’s editorial process. Had the appropriate members of the editorial team been consulted, the letter would have been presented as a news item with the relevant context.”

Velasco was fired soon after high-profile dealers, artists, and other signed another letter that referred to “an uninformed letter signed by artists who do not represent the artistic community at large,” ARTNews reported. This new letter, titled “A United Call from the Art World: Advocating for Humanity,” referred to the Hamas attack, but not to Gazans caught up in the warfare.

For his part, Velasco, who had worked at the publication since 2005 and served as editor since 2017, was unrepentant in comments in The New York Times. “I have no regrets,” he told the paper. I’m disappointed that a magazine that has always stood for freedom of speech and the voices of artists has bent to outside pressure.”

As the Times reported, the initial letter was widely condemned, drawing responses by figures in the art world. On WhatsApp, campaigns were organized to dissuade advertisers from working with the magazine.

Similar actions are occurring at other media outlets. The board of the British-based biomedical and life sciences journal eLife fired editor-in-chief Michael Eisen, after he praised The Onion for a satirical post headlined “Dying Gazans Criticized For Not Using Last Words To Condemn Hamas.”

As reported by NBC News, Eisen, who is Jewish and has family in Israel, posted that he had been fired “for retweeting a @TheOnion piece that calls out indifference to the lives of Palestinian civilians,” he wrote on X, the platform formerly known as Twitter.

“I expressed my opinion, an opinion about the way that American institutions, especially universities, have been kind of not expressing equal concern for the deaths of Palestinians as they have Israelis, which I think is a moral mistake and a political mistake,” Eisen told NBC. “I don’t think that Israeli scientists should feel like the scientific community does not have their backs. The support has been very strong — I thought it was obvious. People don’t always express themselves well in these situations. I wish I made clear how I empathized with them, too.”

Similarly, PhillyVoice.com canned a sports reporter after he tweeted his “solidarity” with Palestine. The Philadelphia 76ers organization tweeted on X: “We stand with the people of Israel and join them in mourning the hundreds of innocent lives lost to terrorism at the hands of Hamas,” along with the hashtag #StandWithIsrael. As The Guardian reported, journalist Jackson Frank, who covered the team, responded: “This post sucks! Solidarity with Palestine always.”

And then there are the doxxing trucks. Operated by the group Accuracy in Media, these mobile billboards have shown up at campuses including Columbia, Harvard and Penn showcasing the faces of members of anti-Israel campus groups. The trucks are emblazoned with legends such as “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

Adam Guillette, source: C-Span

While AIM leader Adam Guillette argues the trucks merely “amplify” information, they have drawn heat as amounting to harassment. The Harvard Hillel Jewish center “strongly condemns any attempt to threaten and intimidate” students who signed the letter, Harvard’s student newspaper the Harvard Crimson reported. And the University of California Berkeley law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky called the truck “despicable,” the New York Times reported. Columbia University president Minouche Shafik issued a statement before the latest truck appeared on the university’s campus, saying some Columbia students “have been victims” of doxxing, calling it a “form of online harassment” that will “not be tolerated,” according to Forbes.

Some demonstrators at Drexel and Penn universities covered their faces and declined to speak publicly, saying they feared being targeted by university officials or losing financial aid, according to The Philadelphia Inquirer. Some noted the doxxing trucks and pointed to a man filming demonstrators on his phone. A Penn alumna at the rally complained, “The surveillance, harassment, and intimidate of these young people is like no other.”

In the academic world, few would dispute that the free exchange of ideas – even noxious ones – should be free of punishment. Students, especially, should be able to speak their views and debate without fear.

However, employers are also free to shun those whose views they find reprehensible. The world off campus is a lot harsher.

As the New York Times reported, in another social media post, hedge fund manager Ackman said he was “100% in support of free speech.” But, he added, “one should be prepared to stand up and be personally accountable for his or her views.”

The marketplace of ideas: who gets in?

Interesting developments on the free-speech front in Arizona and Massachusetts

The battle royal over free speech on campuses is climbing a few decibels on both sides of the country, it seems. The fracas at Arizona State University is likely to grow louder in coming weeks with a reprise visit by a couple controversial conservatives. As for the East Coast, Harvard has distinguished itself by placing last in a ranking by a prominent free-speech organization.

Let’s turn to ASU. It has become a showcase of sorts for conservatives who feel aggrieved and abused, as well as for academics who find themselves uncomfortably in the crosshairs of today’s cultural warfare.

Source: Charlie Kirk X post

Conservative radio host Dennis Prager and Turning Point USA founder Charlie Kirk, who stirred up a hornet’s nest in February when they visited ASU, plan to speak there again on Sept. 27. Their “Health, Wealth & Happiness 2.0” session will be sponsored by a student organization, Turning Point USA at Arizona State University, rather than by an individual college such as Barrett, the honors college that controversially hosted them last time through a now-defunct center.

Conveniently setting the stage for their visit, a university report about the brouhaha over their last visit is expected to be released shortly. That report was demanded by Arizona State Sen. Anthony Kern, who led a hearing into the matter in July. Kern said the legislature’s judiciary committee will take so-far-unspecified action dealing with ASU, depending on the thoroughness of the report.

Kern, who co-chaired the Joint Legislative Ad Hoc Committee on Freedom of Expression at Arizona’s Public Universities, has already telegraphed his feelings that he expects little from ASU that would placate him. “I do not trust the Board of Regents,” Kern said at the July hearing. “I do not trust ASU. I do not trust our universities to teach our kids what needs to be taught.”

For their part, it’s not clear what Prager and Kirk plan to talk about in the coming confab, although the session will also feature at least one state legislator who served on Kern’s ad hoc committee, Austin Smith, who also is a former director of Turning Point USA. That suggests that free speech on campus could take center stage at the session, as well as hoary claims of a leftward tilt among faculty.

Source: Twitter

Smith had asked the regents to investigate the termination of the director of the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development at Barrett. That ex-official, Ann Atkinson, had complained about her firing in an op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, suggesting that it was in reprisal for her organizing the first Prager-Kirk session. In fact, the funding for her position fell away when donor Thomas W. Lewis pulled his backing, citing what he called “the radical ideology that now apparently dominates the college.” 

Shortly before the wintertime Prager-Kirk session, 39 faculty members at the college had written a letter to their dean complaining about the men’s visit, lambasting them as “purveyors of hate who have publicly attacked women, people of color, the LGBTQ community, as well as the institutions of our democracy, including our public institutions of higher education.”

Notably from a free-speech point of view, however, the Barrett faculty members didn’t call for the session to be cancelled. Instead, as some of them wrote in an op-ed in the Arizona Republic, some had slated a teach-in prior to the session called “Defending the Public University.” They maintained that they encouraged students to attend both events and claimed that many students did so. Nor were they party to the Lewis center’s shutdown, the authors said.

While that suggests an openness to free speech, Atkinson has argued that the faculty bullied students into staying away from both the Prager-Kirk talk and the ad hoc committee hearing in July. So far, though, no evidence proving such bullying has emerged (perhaps the university report will illuminate the matter). It may be that students just found the initial talk uninteresting and that, in July, few were on hand for the legislative hearing.

There are some crucial differences between the upcoming Prager-Kirk session and the February one. For one, a student organization is sponsoring the gathering, rather than a college. Thus, while it bears the imprimatur of that student group, it doesn’t need the blessings of a college where most of the faculty find the speakers reprehensible.

Certainly, the men have distinguished themselves as advocates of notions many find toxic. Prager has criticized homosexuality, for instance, writing “I, for one, do not believe that a man’s inability to make love to a woman can be labeled normal. While such a man may be a healthy and fine human being in every other area of life, and quite possibly more kind, industrious, and ethical than many heterosexuals, in this one area he cannot be called normal.” For his part, Kirk has praised Jan. 6, 2021, rioters at the U.S. Capitol as “patriots” whose travel to Washington, D.C., was funded by Turning Point USA, as the Daily Beast reported.

So far, it doesn’t appear as if ASU faculty members plan counterprogramming to rebut likely comments by the pair, which is an interesting approach. Would such programming elevate Prager and Kirk’s status and serve only to legitimize their ideas? One faculty member suggested to me that engaging them in debate would be akin to dignifying a member of the Flat Earth Society by sharing a stage with him or her, even if only to refute the person’s arguments.

Still, the views of Prager and Kirk raise a compelling question for advocates of free speech and those who see universities as places where conflicting ideas ought to be hashed out. When is someone’s speech so far beyond the pale that it doesn’t deserve an airing? And when a school, as opposed to a student group, brings such a person in front of students does that suggest an endorsement (indeed, might it be considered educational malpractice, if there were such a thing)? The challenge in this MAGA era is amplified because a substantial minority of the public share the ideas of such men.

A daughter-in-law of mine who teaches at Princeton frames this as a matter of progress over time. She contends that the line between acceptable ideas and those rightly consigned to history’s dustbin has consistently shifted. There was a time, for instance, when advocates of slavery (indeed slaveholders) could find a forum at universities. Similarly, pro-Nazi speakers and racists were tolerated on campuses. Has the line moved such that it’s left the likes of Prager and Kirk on the wrong side, irrespective of any followings they have in the general public?

Strolling at Harvard, source: the Boston Herald

Now, as to Harvard, the school has been named the worst for free speech among universities reviewed by the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression. As the New York Post reported, Harvard scored poorly in large part because nine professors and researchers there faced calls to be punished or fired based on what they had said or written. Indeed, seven of them were disciplined.

Moreover, much of the trouble at Harvard has to do with self-censorship — not the type imposed by authority figures. The FIRE rankings rely in large part on surveys of students. And at the Boston school, the Boston Herald reported: “Self-censorship is pervasive across the board, according to the survey. More than a quarter of students (26%) said they censor themselves at least a few times a week in conversations with friends, and 25% said they’re more likely to self-censor now than they were when starting college.”

The atmosphere at the university has grown so troublesome to free-speech advocates there that more than 100 faculty members have joined a new Council on Academic Freedom on campus. Indeed, the debate about whether free discussion is stifled at Harvard has been joined – ironically but appropriately at Harvard.

Harvard Magazine sketched out the arguments last June. In part, it cited an op-ed that founders of the new council wrote in The Boston Globe: “The reason that a truth-seeking institution must sanctify free expression is straightforward,” they wrote.  “…The only way that our species has managed to learn and progress is by a process of conjecture and refutation: some people venture ideas, others probe whether they are sound, and in the long run the better ideas prevail.”

This notion, implying that the marketplace of ideas will weed out the intellectual dinosaurs, is a longstanding one, of course. For campuses nationwide, the question today is about who should be permitted into the marketplace and whose ideas deserve only to be shunned.