Monday, February 24

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

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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  • magicteen1 .

    The editorial doesn’t seem to understand that academic freedom does not mean one has to invite a speaker to express his opinions. It means he has the right to express his opinion, something that no one disputes in regards to Cornel West. They simply don’t want him to be invited to an event commemorating Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, someone whose beliefs on Zionism were antithetical to Cornel West’s.

    Academic freedom gives one the right to advocate that it’s ok to be a pedophile. Would anyone in their right mind give such a person a platform? Would be you be denying the right of academic freedom if you refused to give such a person a platform? Of course not.

  • Michael Slate

    Here’s what the artist Shepard Fairey has to say in support of Cornel West and against censorship:

  • ad

    I write in strong support of the decisions made at various administrative levels, especially that of Prof. Todd Presner, Director of the Center of Jewish Students, to continue to include Prof. Cornel West on the program to honor Abraham Heschel this weekend, despite the calls to do otherwise. While the feelings of those who oppose Prof. West’s speaking at UCLA can be understood, their intellectual arguments do not meet the criteria established by the meaning of “free speech” as defined by the First Amendment to the Constitution as well as by traditional understandings of “academic freedom.”

    Prof.West is a highly respected scholar and courageously outspoken advocate of social justice in the USA and throughout the world. He has certainly earned the invitation he received to speak in an event to honor Abraham Heschel, one of West’s own intellectual and spiritual leaders.

    S. Scott Bartchy, PhD [Harvard]
    Emeritus Professor of Christian Origins & History of Religion
    Department of History, UCLA
    Co-founder & Director Emeritus, Center for the Study of Religion at UCLA
    Former VP of the UCLA Chapter of the AAUP

  • rab

    Um, one of your faculty members has a couple of corrections and ideas in response to this editorial:

    Dear Editor,

    Your April 30 editorial, “UCLA made right call in keeping
    controversial speaker, despite pressure” misrepresents the nature of the
    controversy. It states: “Several Jewish organizations … sent the
    event’s organizers a letter urging them to pull (Cornel) West’s
    invitation because of his vocal criticism of Israel.” Not so. None of
    the 23 organizations on that letter asked that West’s invitation be
    pulled. Instead, the writers questioned the wisdom of inviting West,
    and my open letter to him explained why the invitation would be an
    embarrassment to the campus. It was.

    Likewise, the allegation “vocal criticism of Israel” was not used by
    any of the writers. The issue was and remains West’s promoting an
    ideology that is openly anti-coexistence, calling for racist
    discrimination, if not genocidal designs.

    Thirdly, it is unfair to characterize my letter as “pressure from
    outside groups” or “irresponsible, knee-jerk reaction.” The 23
    organizations that questioned West’s invitation represent students and
    faculty on this campus who are not given voice through
    university-established channels. For example, both the “faculty voice”
    on UCLA Newsroom, and the event organizers’ websites declined to post my

    Finally, it is unwise to dismiss community voices as “pressure from
    outside groups.” These voices represent valuable experience and genuine
    concerns of parents, alumni and donors who have emotional investment in
    this campus. We should listen when friends express concerns over
    decisions – e.g., West’s invitation – that may cause harm to the reputation of the

    university, the credibility of its centers and public trust in the administration.

    Judea Pearl
    Chancellor’s professor, UCLA