NEW YORK—A proposed South Carolina bill that would require the state to adopt a federal definition of anti-Semitism that encompasses criticism of the state of Israel offends the First Amendment, and would likely chill vigorous debate on campus, PEN America said today.

The bill, H. 3643, mandates that the definition be taken into consideration when “reviewing, investigating, or deciding whether there has been a violation of a college or university policy prohibiting discriminatory practices on the basis of religion . . . for purposes of determining whether the alleged practice was motivated by anti-Semitic intent.”

As the lead author of the definition in question—Kenneth Stern, now executive director of the Justus & Karin Rosenberg Foundation—has made clear, the “working definition of antisemitism” was created for data collectors in Europe, and was never intended to restrict speech on college campuses.  Stern has come out against the use of the definition in South Carolina, as well as by the University of California system, which backed away from the definition after a lengthy debate over a proposal to adopt it.

The definition (as slightly broadened and shortened by the U.S. Department of State for use in its diplomatic work) includes examples such as “applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation,” “[b]laming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions,” or “multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations.”

Applying this definition in an educational setting would severely chill speech on campus. Indeed, as Jewish Studies educators in South Carolina have argued, “[i]t is misleading, indeed counter-productive, to describe as anti-Semitic political positions that are normative in Israel itself—not to mention the United States—and serves as distraction and fuel for genuine anti-Semitic and racist discourse.”

The South Carolina legislation takes the same flawed approach as the federal “Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016,” S.10 and H.R. 6421, which passed the Senate last Congress and may be reintroduced this session.

“The jump in threats to the health and safety of Jewish students on American college campuses is alarming and demands action, but silencing discussion and debate isn’t the answer,” said PEN America Executive Director Suzanne Nossel. “The First Amendment prohibits the government from making particular ideas and opinions off-limits. Making a wide range of opinions the basis for potential civil rights investigations will only further inflame already polarizing discourse on college campuses. The best way to deal with perspectives that may be considered disagreeable or even offensive is to air them out openly through reasoned discourse.”

The proposed federal Anti-Semitism Awareness Act—to which PEN America is similarly opposed—would have required the Department of Education to consider the State Department definition of anti-Semitism during investigations into whether a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had occurred. Violations of Title VI could lead to denial of federal funds, or to a civil rights lawsuit.

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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.

CONTACT Sarah Edkins, Director for Communications: +1 646-779-4830, sedkins@pen.org