L.A. City Council Resolution Calling for Cancellation of UCLA Conference Risks Infringing on Free Speech
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
NEW YORK—The Los Angeles City Council’s unanimous vote this week to support a resolution calling on UCLA to cancel an upcoming conference organized by National Students for Justice in Palestine (NJSP), out of concern that the event could be a forum for anti-Semitism, represents unwarranted interference by government in protected speech at a public university, PEN America said in a statement today.
The annual conference of NJSP, slated to take place November 16-18 at UCLA, has come under fire in recent weeks from petitioners, politicians, and some UCLA administrators. Critics have argued that the event has the potential to contribute to anti-Semitism at a time when anti-Semitic incidents have been rising across the country; that it may violate federal anti-discrimination laws; that it may contravene university policies related to student fees; and that organizers failed to adhere to rules concerning the use of the university’s name and mascot in conference announcements. NSJP has rejected the last of these claims, and with the support of the ACLU of Southern California, asserted that they are being subject to selective enforcement and discriminated against based on their viewpoints. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block has rightly rejected a request by Congressman Brad Sherman for the event to be cancelled, affirming that the university is bound by the First Amendment, and that NJSP’s plans break no university policies or federal laws. A spokesman for the university confirmed yesterday that the event would go on as scheduled. A unanimous resolution passed this week by L.A. City Council echoed the congressman’s request and urged cancellation of the event.
“The passage of this resolution represents a troubling intrusion on protected speech on campus” said Jonathan Friedman, PEN America Project Director for Campus Free Speech. “While the Council is understandably concerned about rising anti-Semitism around the country, such concerns cannot be the basis for shutting down an approved student conference. Conference organizers are responsible to ensure that their meeting complies with anti-discrimination law, and avoids a descent into bigotry. At the same time, discussion of Palestinian rights and justice constitutes political speech protected by the First Amendment. Chancellor Block’s letter to Representative Sherman clearly delineated NJSP’s rights, the university’s duty to support them, the university’s firm rebuke of any forms of anti-Semitism on campus, and their commitment to ensuring that no unlawful discrimination takes place. The City Council would have been much better off deferring to his decision and supporting a peaceful protest, rather than passing a resolution that invokes the power of government to discourage the university from upholding its Constitutional obligations.”
PEN America’s 2016 report, And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities contains a detailed case study of controversies surrounding Israel-Palestine at UCLA. Analysis of the misguidedness of government intervention in campus free speech issues, and in particular, concerning the drafted Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, can be found in PEN America’s 2017 white paper, Wrong Answer: How Good Faith Attempts to Address Free Speech and Anti-Semitism on Campus Could Backfire.
PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. pen.org
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