University Presidents Clarify Stance On Free Speech After Comments Go Viral

Facing backlash from members of Congress and even the White House, the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania released statements Wednesday clarifying their schools’ positions on the limits of free speech on campus as the war in Gaza continues.

The day before, a congressional hearing about campus antisemitism had yielded a viral clip of university leaders prevaricating on whether calls for the genocide of Jewish people would violate student conduct codes.

The conversation was complicated by the fact that some consider certain pro-Palestinian terms and phrases, like “intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” as advocating for the genocide of Jews. However, many academics and Palestinian rights advocates have challenged that argument.

When pressed on whether such chants would constitute unacceptable bullying and harassment, the presidents of Harvard, UPenn and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology said their universities’ responses would depend on the context of the language, including whether it was targeted and pervasive.

Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) ― who in the past has sponsored legislation to protect freedom of expression on college campuses ― made clear during her questioning of the university leaders that she was referring to such chants. Stefanik pushed back on MIT’s president, Sally Kornbluth, who said she hadn’t heard calls for the genocide of Jews on campus. “You’ve heard chants for intifada,” Stefanik responded.

Stefanik also pressed Harvard President Claudine Gay on the term.

“You understand that this call for intifada is a call to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally, correct?” she asked.

“That type of hateful speech is personally abhorrent to me,” Gay responded, adding that it was “at odds with the values of Harvard.” But she maintained that “we embrace a commitment to expression even of views that are objectionable, offensive, hateful.”

Outrage ensued ― even though the university leaders condemned antisemitism repeatedly throughout the four-hour hearing, and even though each of the schools has established initiativesagainstantisemitism in recent weeks.

“It’s unbelievable that this needs to be said: Calls for genocide are monstrous and antithetical to everything we represent as a country,” White House spokesperson Andrew Bates said in a statement. And Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro (D) referred to UPenn President Liz Magill’s testimony as a failure of leadership, urging the university’s board to meet and determine whether her remarks “represent the values” of the school.

In a letter to Penn Thursday reported by Axios, Stone Ridge Asset Management said that its CEO, Penn alum Ross Stevens, was withdrawing a gift of limited partnership units in Stone Ridge said to be worth $100 million, due to what the company called the university’s “permissive approach to hate speech.”

Within a day of the hearing, two of Tuesday’s congressional witnesses had released statements stating they would “clarify” their rules, or that anyone who threatened Jewish students would be held “accountable.”

“There was a moment during yesterday’s congressional hearing on antisemitism when I was asked if a call for the genocide of Jewish people on our campus would violate our policies,” Magill said in a video message Wednesday.

“In that moment, I was focused on our University’s longstanding policies aligned with the U.S. Constitution, which say that speech alone is not punishable,” she went on. “I was not focused on, but I should have been, the irrefutable fact that a call for genocide of Jewish people is a call for some of the most terrible violence human beings can perpetrate. It’s evil — plain and simple.”

Magill said that a call for genocide of Jews would constitute harassment and intimidation in her view, and that Penn’s conduct policies, which for decades have been “guided by the Constitution and the law,” would now “need to be clarified and evaluated.”

Gay put out a statement on Wednesday as well.

“There are some who have confused a right to free expression with the idea that Harvard will condone calls for violence against Jewish students,” Gay said. “Let me be clear: Calls for violence or genocide against the Jewish community, or any religious or ethnic group are vile, they have no place at Harvard, and those who threaten our Jewish students will be held to account.”

Kornbluth, MIT’s president, does not appear to have addressed the backlash from this week’s hearing. (After this article was published, the executive committee of the MIT Corp., MIT’s governing board, released a public statement praising Kornbluth’s leadership and saying “she has our full and unreserved support.”)

Instances of antisemitism on college campuses, and elsewhere around the country, have increased in the weeks since Hamas’ attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and Israel’s subsequent air strikes and ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.

But free speech advocates have warned that the crackdown on speech critical of Israel risks chilling free and open debate on college campuses. Jewish students at Penn are facing potential disciplinary consequences after screening “Israelism” ― a film produced by a Jewish crew that follows Jewish Americans as they reevaluate their relationship to Zionism ― over objections from administrators.

And pro-Palestinian activists at Harvard told HuffPost that they felt abandoned by university leadership after a pro-Israel group accused them of antisemitism and displayed their names and faces on a billboard box truck that drove around campus.

Will Creeley, the legal director of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, told The New York Times that the university presidents’ comments at Tuesday’s hearings were “legally correct” and that “it does depend on context.”

But Creeley said he was frustrated that the presidents appeared to “discover free speech scruples while under fire at a congressional hearing.” (Harvard and Penn ranked worst and second-worst on FIRE’s college rankings this year for “open environments for free speech,” though some students on bothcampuses objected to parts of the group’s analysis. MIT ranked near the middle of the list.)

Others criticized what they called the “demagoguery” from Stefanik.

Jay Michaelson, a rabbi and Daily Beast correspondent, noted the contentious debate over the definition of calls for genocide. “There is no ‘Yes or No’ answer to this question, because the answer depends on the context,” he argued, referring to Stefanik’s line of questioning.

“What about when someone makes a statement in a classroom or a college lecture? If someone insists, in a classroom discussion, that Israel as a country is an illegitimate colonial outpost and should be ‘wiped off the map’?” Michaelson wrote. “That sounds like a political statement to me, not an act of bullying or intimidation. But if a mob marches into a Shabbat service and shouts the same slogan, then that’s clearly harassment and in violation of the policy. Context matters.”

Stefanik has called for Magill’s ouster as Penn’s president. Michaelson concluded: “It’s cancel culture when it’s me, but not when it’s thee.”