(NEW YORK)— In a Congressional hearing on antisemitism on college campuses this week, Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY-21) asked the presidents of MIT, Harvard, and the University of Pennsylvania whether calls for genocide against Jews would constitute harassment or bullying under their student codes of conduct. The exchange has garnered much public and media attention, as the three presidents offered what have been characterized as short, “lawyerly” responses, explaining that the assessment of such a hypothetical scenario would depend on the context–on how the remarks were made, and whether they targeted a specific individual. 

In response, PEN America CEO Suzanne Nossel released the following statement:

“Calls for genocide have no place in reasoned discourse. But, abhorrent as such a hypothetical may be, the First Amendment’s protections for speech extend even to deeply hateful speech, unless it constitutes a true threat, incitement to imminent violence, or harassment, which is legally defined as requiring severity and pervasiveness. 

So even a call for genocide – though odious and warranting unequivocal condemnation – is not speech that could be banned or punished by the state. PEN America has long urged private universities to adhere to a standard for free speech that parallels the expansive level of restraint mandated by the First Amendment. Indeed, many universities have adopted policies approaching that.   

At the same time, universities must respond to threats, hateful intimidation, overt racism, and other forms of discrimination that can pollute the campus community. Even if it falls within the bounds of First Amendment or similar protection, such speech can still cause great offense, and impair equal access to the full benefits of a college education and the ability of all students to participate in campus discourse. Amid a wave of antisemitic rhetoric, harassment, and violence, as well as incidents of anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bigotry, college and university leaders must ensure a physically safe, equitable, and open campus environment.

Where private universities have bullying or harassment policies that depart from the broad First Amendment standard and disfavor or restrict certain hateful speech, they must be enforced uniformly regardless of the target of the speech in question. The fair-minded and transparent enforcement of well-crafted policies can foster open exchange by making clear that while all forms of dialogue – even that which may result in serious offense – will be protected, identity-based denigration and dehumanization will not be tolerated.  

Where policies prohibit racial epithets, or words and actions that humiliate, degrade, demean or intimidate — as some of the university policies at issue in the Congressional hearing do — it is hard to see how direct calls for genocide of a particular group of people would not fall within these bounds. The letter and spirit of such policies would appear to directly address discriminatory and menacing speech precisely along the lines of an outright call for the genocide of Jews. 

It is imperative, however, that such prohibitions are applied narrowly, and not used as a basis to ban political rhetoric, the discussion of theories or ideas in a classroom, the expression of opinions, or the use of slogans or metaphorical language that has multiple meanings.

The tensions of this moment demand moral conviction and concerted action from university leaders. They must stand up for time-honored principles, including the university’s deep commitment to freedom of expression, to ensuring equitable educational opportunities, and to creating an open environment where students can thrive regardless of religion, race, or nationality.” 

About PEN America

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: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057