The Brandeis University community is currently navigating a complex and sensitive period marked by heightened discussions and actions surrounding issues of free speech, student safety and the impact of international events on campus life, specifically the Israel-Hamas war. The series of developments and debates during this period reflects broader national and global concerns, as there has been a significant rise in discrimination against Muslim, Arab and Jewish people in the United States after the Oct. 7 attacks.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reported that “there has been a surge of antisemitic incidents in the United States.” The ADL has recorded over 1,481 antisemitic incidents directed at “Jews [or people perceived to be Jewish] or Jewish institutions.” Concurrently, the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, reported that it has received “774 complaints, including reported bias” since Oct. 7, which is a “182% jump from any given 16-day stretch last year.” A distressing event occurred recently on Nov. 25, where three college students of Palestinian descent were shot and injured near the University of Vermont. This alarming surge further highlights the widespread impact of this conflict that extends beyond the Middle East and is deeply affecting American society.
Brandeis University is an institution founded on combating Jewish discrimination in higher education. The Nov. 10 protest on campus that voiced concerns over the Israel-Hamas conflict, resulted in university intervention, citing that the “demonstration devolved into the invocation of hate speech.” This intervention involved police action where the Brandeis University Police made seven arrests for charges including Disorderly Conduct, Unlawful Assembly, and Assault & Battery on a Police Officer. This intervention sparked intense campus-wide debates and discussions in regards to the complexity of balancing free speech with campus safety. Particularly contentious was the use of the phrase “from the river to the sea,” which some viewed as a protected expression under the First Amendment, while others viewed it as inciting harassment and antisemitism.
In the wake of these events, faculty members at Brandeis have actively engaged in the discussion of free speech and campus safety. This discourse has led to significant faculty involvement, culminating in an emergency meeting on Nov. 17 to address these pressing issues. This meeting’s agenda first focused on the review of the Task Force’s five Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression. These principles were developed and recommended by a task force led by Professor George Hall of the department of economics, and later accepted by the Board of Trustees in 2018. This Task Force was dedicated to creating a “free and robust debate and deliberation among all members of the university community.”
Principle one, titled “Maximizing Free Speech in a Diverse Community,” is deeply rooted in Louis Brandeis’ quote, “If there be a time to expose through discussion the falsehood and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.” Thus, this principle focuses on encouraging the “widest range of political and scholarly opinions and to prevent attempts to shut down conversations, no matter what their topic.”
The second principle focuses on “Developing Skills to Engage in Difficult Conversations.” The Task Force recognized the inherent challenges in tackling contentious issues, and emphasized the importance of debating such topics without prior restraint. It advocates for ongoing educational processes to expose the community to a wide range of viewpoints.
“Sharing Responsibility” is the third principle which highlights the collective moral responsibility within the university community. It advocates for civility and respect, aiming to create a “just and inclusive campus culture so that all can participate fully in the intellectual and social life of the university.”
Aligning with ensuring a safe environment, the fourth principle “Rejecting Physical Violence” rejects physical violence and upholds peaceful protest as “fully appropriate to an environment of vigorous discussion and debate.”
Principle five is “Distinguishing between Invited Speakers and University Honorees” which differentiates between the university providing a platform for outside speakers and its endorsement of honorees. This principle acknowledges that the latter might imply support for their work or life.
A sixth principle was added later to this set, one that places restrictions on speech, even though this notion was originally left out by the original task force. This principle acknowledges that freedom of speech is not absolute and may be limited in “certain narrowly-defined circumstances,” such as when it “violates the law, that falsely defames a specific individual, that constitutes a genuine threat or harassment, that unjustifiably invades substantial privacy or confidentiality interests, or that is otherwise directly incompatible with the functioning of the university.” This principle was enacted on Nov. 10 to restrict the use of certain expressions.
Thus, in response to these principles and the recent campus events, faculty members proposed several motions. Motion One proposed reassessing these principles, calling for a new Task Force on Free Expression. Many professors expressed support for a transparent process that reconciles the inherent conflicts in current policies. Thus, Motion One was amended as follows: “We move that the Provost and the Senate together establish a new Task Force on Free Expression in order to come up with a set of recommendations for how to revise and reinterpret the Principles of Free Speech and Free Expression. The Task Force shall also issue recommendations for what the appropriate consequences are for a violation of these principles (for instance, whether they ought to include disciplinary action by the university or the involvement of campus or city police). Like the original task force, the reconstituted version shall have broad representation of students, faculty and staff. The task force shall include subject matter experts both internal and external if needed, with the latter being funded by the university. The task force shall deliver its report by the end of the academic year. Finally, the task force shall focus attention on the tension between principle six and the other principles.” The motion received support from the faculty and was voted to be sent out for a faculty-wide vote.
Motion Two focused on seeking an independent investigation into the decision-making and actions of the administration on Nov. 10, including police presence and behavior. The motion states, “We move that the Administration commission a thorough independent investigation—to be shared with the Brandeis community in written form by March 1, 2024—of its decision-making, communications, and other consequential acts leading up to and including the events of Nov. 10. The inquiry shall include close examination of the police actions on that day, process around police presence and training, and factors such as public statements and confidential decision-making by the administration that may have contributed to an escalation of tension. The Senate shall participate in defining the scope and charge of the investigation and in choosing outside investigators capable of addressing all relevant issues; the charge will include proposed remedies that may help avoid similar incidents in the future and alleviate harm caused when similar situations occur.” Minimal debate occurred for this motion and was approved for a faculty vote.
Motion Three aimed to prevent escalation of conflict and undue punishment related to speech during campus protests. This motion stated, “We move that, until and unless a university committee comes up with a process that the faculty approve by vote, Brandeis ends its restrictions on or prohibitions of speech of any kind during public demonstrations or protests organized by members of our community and which occur on our campus.” However, this motion raised concerns among many faculty members due to its broad and potentially ambiguous implications. As a result, the faculty voted to table this motion for further discussion and potential amendment at the next faculty meeting.
Motion Four aimed at improving faculty’s role in supporting students, asking for greater transparency in communications during periods of uncertainty. This motion stated: “We move that Student Life and other administrative offices simultaneously share with the faculty and staff any communication with students about decisions that will have significant impact on student life.” This motion was seen as a step towards fostering better communication and support mechanisms within the university community. It was passed by the faculty and is set to be sent to faculty for a vote.
Central to these debates are the insights of various faculty members, each bringing a unique perspective to the table. Professor Jonathan D. Sarna of the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies (NEJS) department has voiced serious concerns about the impact of recent events on Jewish students. During a Nov. 27 interview with The Hoot, Sarna described an environment fraught with “discrimination, intimidation and harassment.” He recounted the fear and anxiety experienced by Jewish students on the day of the protest [Nov. 10], saying, “Indeed, I know students who were terrified.” Sarna mentioned that the police advised the students to stay inside, which, in his view, further heightened the sense of danger and unease among the students. This sentiment was echoed at a Hillel event on Nov. 13, where he observed many students exhibiting heightened caution and concern for personal safety. Reflecting on these observations, Sarna stated, “This is not what free speech is about,” thereby underscoring his concern about the delicate balance between free speech and ensuring a secure and non-threatening environment for all students.
Additionally, Sarna emphasized Brandeis University’s obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. This act reads “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” This obligation is pertinent given that Brandeis University receives a significant amount of federal financial assistance to support various aspects of its operations. Sarna mentioned the recent colleague letter sent out by the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) which reminds schools that “their legal obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to provide all students, including students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian, a school environment free from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, including shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, or citizenship or residency in a country with a dominant religion or distinct religious identity.”
Professor Amy Singer from the department of history also shared her views with The Hoot on Nov. 27. She expressed concerns regarding the boundaries of free speech within the university setting. She highlighted the diversity of opinions among the faculty, similar to the broader public spectrum. Singer stated, “Faculty are concerned about circumscribing free speech. Who can do that? What does it mean to do that? And what then might be the sanctions if someone violates whatever principles are set down?” She emphasized the need for clear, transparent university policies to guide the adjudication of any potential free speech restrictions. “Faculty have different understandings and appreciations of free speech and how big free speech is or should be. And whether there should be any limitations at all. And there are naturally discussions about this,” she added. Singer’s focus is on ensuring that any decisions regarding limitations on free speech are made transparently and with input through broad discussion on campus, and that they are well-understood by all members of the university community.
Professor Susan Lanser from the English department also shared her perspectives with The Hoot on Nov. 30. Lanser outlined four primary concerns. She stated, “In my view, the most significant concerns that have arisen are  protecting free speech as described in our own university guidelines;  upholding our Brandeisian mission as educators dedicated to ‘truth unto to its innermost parts’ even—indeed, especially—when that truth is complex and unsettling;  embracing equally all members of our community and do not privilege the needs of some over the needs of others; and, not least  ensuring robust faculty participation in major decisions that affect our students, our campus climate and the future of the university.”
Additionally, Lanser pointed out what she perceives as the university’s failure to honor crucial values in its response. This critique includes, but is not limited to, the administration’s letters and public statements, such as an op-ed in The Boston Globe, which she found lacking in adequately addressing the complexities and sensitivities of the situation. Lanser particularly highlighted the university’s delayed response in addressing the suffering of students from diverse identities and national origins. This aspect of her critique suggests a need for more immediate and empathetic engagement from the university with its student body during times of crisis and conflict, especially when these events have direct implications for the students’ sense of safety and belonging.
Professor Chad Williams from the department of history, through his engagement on social media, has expressed strong support for student activism at Brandeis University. In an Instagram post, he commended the students who participated in a walkout, protesting against what he perceives as “the university’s violent policing of freedom of speech and creation of an environment of silencing and repression.” The university administration’s characterization of the protestors as “chanting threats” and using “harassing language” was a point of contention. In his post, Williams critically highlighted the lack of engagement from the university’s president with the “campus community, and faculty in particular, about how to define the limits of free speech and what this means for both campus safety and academic freedom.” He expressed disappointment in the administration’s approach and placed his faith in the students to hold the university accountable. This statement from Williams not only showcases his support for student-led protests but also underscores a broader concern about the university’s approach to handling contentious issues and its impact on the fundamental principles of academic freedom and open discourse.
Thus, in response to these ongoing debates and challenges, the administration, led by Provost Carol Fierke, Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences Jeffrey Shoulson and other deans, took a significant step by announcing the cancellation of all classes on Dec. 5. In their letter, they emphasized, “We have significant work to do within our community … We are organizing a day-long, teach-in on Tuesday, December 5.” The letter continues, “As challenging as these times are, they present an unusual opportunity for learning together, for drawing on the extraordinary and diverse expertise within our faculty, and for engaging in serious, authentic debate and inquiry, conducted in a community that values respect and diversity. In so doing, we best live up to our foundational Jewish roots, with their emphasis on critical thinking, including self-criticism in which students and faculty are encouraged to question openly and accept nothing without study, debate and reflection.”
Following this decision, on Nov. 27, President Ron Liebowitz addressed the campus community by acknowledging the challenges of the past weeks, particularly concerning the Israel-Hamas conflict. He expressed appreciation for the faculty and staff for their support of students and emphasized the university’s commitment to “protecting free speech and academic freedom, ensuring a safe environment, and adhering to our obligations under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” He further emphasized the university’s founding principles of inclusivity and the need to combat antisemitism in higher education.
The situation at Brandeis University continues to evolve as faculty and students engage in ongoing debates about free speech, campus safety and the impact of international events on campus life. The faculty sentiments reflect a diverse range of perspectives and concerns, highlighting the complexities of addressing these issues in a university setting.