Friday, February 27, 2009

Poster Session

Ha'aretz reports on a story that Paul Horwitz had previously picked up on: namely, the decision by two Canadian universities (Carleton University -- no relation to my alma mater -- and University of Ottawa) to ban certain allegedly inflammatory posters advertising "Israel Apartheid Week". The posters showcase an Israeli helicopter firing a missile at a Palestinian child; a statement from Ottawa University said that "All posters approved must promote a campus culture where all members of the community can play a part in a declaration of human rights." The Ha'aretz article indicates that part of the university's misgivings stem from the evocation the poster makes of the old anti-Semitic canard of Jews as child-killers.

Canada does not have as robust a free speech ethos as the United States, though in general I prefer our system to theirs. As Prof. Horwitz notes, furthermore, the students are not protesting the human rights standards which lead to the university's ban -- merely their application to this case.

In the comments of Prof. Horwitz's post, I noted that the administrators may have been spooked by recent events at York University. The University of Ottawa had its own incident recently when their branch of PIRG (Public Interest Research Group) refused to work with Hillel to help fund a speaker from the African Jewish community coming to talk about sustainable development projects and interfaith schooling for Jewish, Muslim, and Christian children. OPIRG said its decision was "because your organization (Hillel) and its relationship to apartheid Israel." In general, the anti-Israel community at Canadian universities has shown a disturbing tendency to attack Jews qua Jews, which of course amplifies the "cultural meaning" of their poster as making a statement about Jews, rather than just Israel.

I don't support banning these posters (particularly from within my American free speech ethos), but I understand why the administrators may have been nervous. Anti-Israel discourse at Canadian universities has been teetering on the precipice for quite some time. Inflammatory incitement is the last thing the academic community needs right now. I would rather the university meet the rhetoric of these students with more speech rather than an enforced silence -- the route the university appears to have taken, incidentally, with reference to the proposed academic boycott of Israel, condemning it as in violation of norms of academic freedom.


Jack said...

Assuming the posters were going up on university grounds and especially if they were being printed on the university dime I don't really see anything wrong with prohibiting bigoted speech (though I don't exactly see it in the description of the poster). Surely if some College Republicans chapter was putting up signs with, say, a big African American man staring creepily at a white woman walking along at night for "Urban Crime Week" we'd all be on board with the university asking for a sign change. Same would go for inflammatory signs that can be read as appealing to bigoted mythology and stereotypes about any other group (though there are a few groups that one could get away with targeting).

This is totally different from government censorship and I'm pretty much ok with it.

PG said...

If these are state universities, it is government censorship to prohibit speech of this type (although the university can certainly ask the student groups to take their peers' feelings into consideration and revise the posters accordingly; and there's a pressure on the other side coming from U.S. laws against hostile environments in academia and workplaces, such that letting this go too far could get the university in trouble for violating Jewish students' and employees' right to learn and work in a non-hostile environment).

According to Wikipedia, U of O and Carleton U are public universities, and if they were in the U.S. would be subject to the First Amendment.