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Editorial: UCLA made right call in keeping controversial speaker, despite pressure

By Editorial Board

April 30, 2015 12:24 am

UCLA had to answer hard questions over the merits of academic freedom last week. It answered correctly.

This board commends the university and the UCLA Alan D. Leve Center for Jewish Studies for holding firm in their decision to invite Cornel West, philosopher and professor emeritus of Princeton University, to speak at its “Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity” conference Sunday despite pressure to rescind that invitation.

The event will bring together more than 25 speakers to commemorate the late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and his commitment to the civil rights movement and social justice. West is scheduled to deliver the keynote address Sunday at the UCLA Faculty Center and later participate in a roundtable discussion that will include Heschel’s daughter, Susannah Heschel, a Jewish studies professor at Dartmouth College.

Several Jewish organizations, including the Zionist Organization of America, Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity and the AMCHA Initiative recently sent the event’s organizers a letter urging them to pull West’s invitation because of his vocal criticism of Israel and support of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. Judea Pearl, a UCLA professor emeritus of computer science whose son Daniel Peal was kidnapped and murdered by Pakistani militants in 2002, called on West to excuse himself from speaking in an open letter published by the Jewish Journal.

But what West’s critics seem to be missing is that their disagreement with his political views does not obligate an academic institution to bar him from speaking. UCLA has a responsibility to the principles of academic freedom. Canceling someone’s speech after receiving pressure from outside groups is an irresponsible, knee-jerk reaction for any university.

To be sure, West is unapologetically anti-Israel and pro-BDS. He has called Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a war criminal. He likewise called President Obama a war criminal in August for a drone policy and a foreign policy he said are complicit with the oppression of Palestinian people.

West is firm in his beliefs, just as there are millions who firmly disagree with his stance on Israel. Under no circumstances should that disagreement be considered an excuse to silence West.

In an interview with the Jewish Journal last week, UCLA Center for Jewish Studies Director Todd Presner said exactly that, adding that the content of West’s speech will not pertain to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but instead to Heschel and his dedication to the civil rights movement.

Regardless, UCLA has long prided itself on its appreciation of academic freedom. That freedom may cause disagreements and it may not always be polite, but it should be universally protected. We respect the university’s decision not to consider West and his viewpoints an exception.

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