PBS Sympathizes With Pro-Hamas Camping Protesters at Columbia: ‘Free Speech’

News & Politics

Tuesday’s edition of the PBS NewsHour took a deep-dive look at the anti-Jewish, pro-Hamas protesters camped out at Columbia University, with some “protesters” spewing eliminationist rhetoric at Israel and telling Jewish students to “go back to Poland.” One girl stood in front of a group of Jewish counter protesters holding a sign that read “Al Qassam’s next targets.” (Al Qassam is the military wing of Hamas.)

Yet anchor Geoff Bennett’s intro was disconcertingly mild, ignoring all the disgusting details of the pro-Hamas demonstrators, while predominantly portraying them as victims of an over-aggressive college administration. Whatever actual goals the protests may have (divestment by the universities from Israel companies, perhaps) weren’t mentioned.

Bennett put the genuine threat to Jewish students in passive terms, noting “but some students, Jewish students, in particular, as well as some alumni and faculty, say there’s too much hostility on campus, leading some to feel threatened for their safety.”

After quotes from a concerned non-Jewish student and the Anti-Defamation League, he pivoted:

(A shame PBS didn’t cover such unfair practices by colleges during the COVID hysteria, when they were kicking out students out of housing they’d paid for, for the crime of…grocery shopping.)

He brought Irene Mulvey into the studio, president of the (hard-left) American Association of University Professors, who delivered hypocritical talking points about defending freedom of expression on campus. Yet Mulvey signed an open letter at the height of the Black Lives Matter hysteria voicing concerns about “microaggressions” on campus. But now violent threats against Jews are part of “free speech.”

Mulvey called them “peaceful protesters,” and pompously lamented “we saw the suppression of speech and silencing of voices because somebody might not like what they’re saying. And that is a real danger in a democracy.”

When Bennett asked, “How should a university balance the expression of free speech and student safety?” Mulvey was dismissive: “There’s genuine — there’s harassment and antisemitism has, is not new, it’s not the first time hate speech has reared its ugly head on campus. There are policies in place to deal with these kinds of things. And that’s where we should go, policies that ensure due process for the students. And then what we’re seeing instead is new policies being drafted on time, manner and place of protest….”

Bennett followed up strongly: Well, thinking about this from the perspective of Jewish students who say they feel intimidated. If there is a climate of harassment on campus, isn’t the administration morally compelled and also compelled by law, by Title IX, to address it and shut it down?

Mulvey said in times like these, “….you have to err on the side of free and open inquiry. There — hate speech, antisemitism has no place on campus or anywhere and there are policies to deal with that. But in higher education, our primary focus should be academic freedom, free speech, and — free speech and associational rights for students.”

Bennett then went to Dr. Andrew Marks at Columbia University, who quibbled with a couple of Mulvey’s false assertions and noted examples of anti-Semitism on campus, but also praised Columbia’s president and said things were quieting down.

PBS NewsHour

4/23/24

7:03:29 p.m. (ET)

Geoff Bennett: College campuses in several parts of the country are struggling tonight with just where to draw the line between allowing protests and free speech and preventing antisemitism and intimidation. As the school year nears its end, Columbia University announced it would stay on a hybrid schedule until the end of the spring semester next week. And students were arrested at New York University last night.

Police arrested more than 100 people at NYU, as the turmoil that has roiled Columbia over the past week spreads to other schools.

Protester: It’s a really, really outrageous crackdown by the university to allow the police to arrest students on our own campus.

Geoff Bennett: Police said they were called in by University officials, who said protesters breached barricades and behaved in a — quote — “disruptive and antagonizing manner.” Some faculty disputed that characterization by the school.

It came as a wave of pro-Palestinian protests and encampments have spread in the past week since Columbia University President Minouche Shafik testified before a congressional committee about antisemitism on campus. Many are students, but not all are from the respective school where they are protesting.

Earlier in the day, at least 60 people were arrested at Yale. There have been similar protests at Emerson, MIT, Boston University, the University of Michigan, and the University of California.

Protesters: Free, free, free Palestine!

Geoff Bennett: Columbia has been the flash point for a week now. Hundreds of students have turned out for protests.

On Thursday, Shafik called the New York Police Department to break up tent encampments, and more than 100 protesters were arrested. Many students and faculty felt Shafik’s crackdown has been excessively harsh in squelching free speech.

Protesters: The people united will never be defeated!

Geoff Bennett: But some students, Jewish students, in particular, as well as some alumni and faculty, say there’s too much hostility on campus, leading some to feel threatened for their safety.

Michael D’Agostino is a junior at the engineering school. He’s not Jewish, but says he’s watched what’s happened too often.

Michael D’Agostino, Student, Columbia University: The campus, honestly, it’s full of a lot of hate and disagreement. And it’s honestly just sad to see. It seems a pretty awful thing said to not only practicing Jews, but, I mean, people that are ethnically Jewish, simply for wearing like a Star of David.

Geoff Bennett: The Anti-Defamation League posted a video, contending it had become too dangerous as well.

Man: Two individuals threw a rock at my head, hit me right in the face. I’m calling public safety. NYPD, where are you?

Geoff Bennett: But protesters say the crackdown is not justified.

Aya Lyon-Sereno is a sophomore at Barnard College, which is part of Columbia, majoring in urban studies. She’s Jewish.

Aya Lyon-Sereno, Student, Barnard College: Barnard students have been evicted from dorms they’re paying for, have been given 15 minutes to gather any belongings and are not allowed to eat in any dining halls, are not allowed to, like, use their meal plans and have been really, really criminalized.

Geoff Bennett: She also said the administration’s approach has backfired.

Aya Lyon-Sereno: The atmosphere on campus has been really tense, and I and many other students attribute that to the administration’s actions, that people are feeling like it’s tense on campus, people are feeling unsafe because there’s a ton of cops in riot gear here.

Geoff Bennett: For his part, President Biden also criticized many of the protests yesterday.

Joe Biden, President of the United States: I condemn the antisemitic protests. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.

Geoff Bennett: And, today, before he went into court, former President Donald Trump blamed President Biden.

Donald Trump, Former President of the United States (R) and Current U.S. Presidential Candidate: What’s going on at the college level, at the colleges, the Columbia, NYU and others, is a disgrace. And it’s a — it’s really on Biden. He has the wrong signal. He’s got the wrong tone. He’s got the wrong words.

Geoff Bennett: The situation is also starting to affect the commencement season. The University of Southern California canceled all outside speakers, it says, out of concern for public.

That followed a much-criticized decision to cancel the remarks of valedictorian Asna Tabassum, a Muslim student, over unspecified safety concerns.

While Columbia University’s administration has faced criticism for how it’s handled the events and the arrest of students, concerns remain about the safety of Jewish staff and students on campus.

We will get both of these perspectives first from Irene Mulvey, President Of The American Association of University Professors. She spent 37 years teaching mathematics at Fairfield University before retiring.

Dr. Mulvey, thank you for being with us.

And we should say that members of the Columbia University chapter of your organization are expected to move to censure the university president for her decision to call in the NYPD last week to arrest demonstrators. Why? Why is that warranted, in your view?

Irene Mulvey, President, American Association of University Professors: Well, I think the idea of calling in police in riot gear on peaceful protesters protesting outside is a remarkably disproportionate and wrong-ended response to the events we’re seeing on campus, because higher education is founded on listening, learning, discussion, debate, free and open inquiry.

We challenge students to challenge their most deeply held beliefs in order to justify them to themselves and to others. Our goal is communication in service of understanding. Instead, we saw the suppression of speech and silencing of voices because somebody might not like what they’re saying.

And that is a real danger in a democracy.

Geoff Bennett: Well, how should a university balance the expression of free speech and student safety?

Irene Mulvey: There’s genuine — there’s — harassment and antisemitism has — is not new. It’s not the first time hate speech has reared its ugly head on campus.

There are policies in place to deal with these kinds of things. And that’s where we should go, policies that ensure due process for the students. And then what we’re seeing instead is new policies being drafted on time, manner and place of protest. So, your protest has to be over in a roped-off area in a tiny space on campus.

This is suppression of speech. So the idea of, if you’re suppressing speech in order to keep students safe, that’s a false choice. You can do both.

Geoff Bennett: Well, thinking about this from the perspective of Jewish students who say they feel intimidated, if there is a climate of harassment on campus, isn’t the administration morally compelled and also compelled by law, by Title IX, to address it and shut it down?

Irene Mulvey: The institution is required to allow for the most free and open expression, while also ensuring that conversations are civil and dialogue is respectful.

But in situations like this, these are — people have extremely strong positions, and these are polarizing times, that debates are heated and messy. And so you have to err on the side of free and open inquiry. There — hate speech, antisemitism has no place on campus or anywhere and there are policies to deal with that.

But in higher education, our primary focus should be academic freedom, free speech, and — free speech and associational rights for students.

Geoff Bennett: As protests spread to other campuses, what lessons could other college administrators, university administrators take away from what’s transpired at Columbia?

Irene Mulvey: They could think about creative ways to respond. They could think about ways to encourage communication and dialogue in open forums across their campus and engaging all students, so that all students have an opportunity to hear other points of view, to understand other points of view, to question other points of view.

They should figure out creative ways to respond, because what happened at NYU and Columbia is completely unacceptable. The silencing of speech in a democracy because somebody doesn’t like it, this is a real danger.

Geoff Bennett: Irene Mulvey is president of the American Association of University Professors. Thank you for your insights.

Irene Mulvey: Thank you.

Geoff Bennett: Let’s turn now to Dr. Andrew Marks. He’s the chair of the department of physiology and cellular biophysics at Columbia University.

Thank you for being with us.

Dr. Andrew R. Marks, Department of Physiology and Cellular Biophysics Chair, Columbia University: Thanks for having me.

Geoff Bennett: So how do you feel about Dr. Shafik’s handling of the ongoing demonstrations at Columbia? And what do you make of this view that the old policies in place to deal with student demonstrations were sufficient?

Dr. Andrew R. Marks: I think she’s doing the best that she can. I think that her heart is in the right place.

I think it’s an incredibly difficult situation and there are no easy answers. The university, Columbia University, has had policies in place which I think are capable of dealing with this situation if they’re able to be enforced.

Geoff Bennett: Have you witnessed incidents of antisemitism on campus?

Dr. Andrew R. Marks: Yes, I have. I have seen antisemitic slurs being hurled at Jewish students. And it’s been very painful to watch. I have seen antisemitic hate language written on the college walk in the middle of campus and posters hanging that have been very offensive.

Geoff Bennett: What more should Columbia be doing? What more could Columbia be doing to make Jewish students feel safer?

Dr. Andrew R. Marks: Well, I think Columbia has already done quite a lot and taken steps.

And my personal observation is that, over the last several days, the hate speech has been toned down on campus. The problem is that, as you know, Columbia’s campus is in the middle of New York City. And when you leave campus either — in either direction, there’s a tremendous amount of antisemitic hate speech being hurled at students and faculty from people outside the campus.

Geoff Bennett: When it comes to what’s happening on campus, how should a university balance student safety and student expression?

Dr. Andrew R. Marks: Well, I think that students should be allowed to protest, absolutely. And I think that the limit has to be on hate speech.

So I think that, as long as the protests are civil and respectful of other members of the community, that needs to be protected and encouraged. When it drifts over to hate speech, then it becomes offensive and I think threatening to the Jewish community at the university.

Geoff Bennett: What do you think is informing and influencing Dr. Shafik’s response to these ongoing protests?

Dr. Andrew R. Marks: Again, she’s been in an incredibly difficult situation.

And I wanted to clarify a couple of things I heard your previous speaker say. First of all, there — the actions taken against students had nothing to do with the content of their speech, except when it comes to hate speech, of course, but in terms of what they were protesting. It really had to do with them breaking the existing rules of the university.

And President Shafik is responsible for the safety of all students. And she took an action, which I was not in favor of, bringing in the police. I wanted to negotiate or talk to the students some more before that. But she did that because she felt it was necessary to preserve the safety of the Jewish community on the campus and other people on campus.

I was one of the people in the Senate Executive Committee that helped write the event policy. And it’s important to note that that was done in complete collaboration and working very closely with students. And while no policy is perfect, we tried to come up with one that was fair.

Your previous speaker mentioned that we were limiting protests to tiny parts of campus. That’s not accurate. There were designated areas and times and place, which is common for all university campuses. And had the students adhered to those guidelines, things would have gone much differently.

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