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Op-ed: UCLA must protect free speech, academic freedom of those advocating for Palestine

By UCLA Faculty for Academic Freedom

Dec. 5, 2023 8:48 p.m.

Editor’s note: This submission is an edited version of an open letter to the university. More than 250 members of UCLA faculty signed this submission. Please see the original letter to view the complete list of signatories.

To Chancellor Block and the UCLA administration:

We write as members of the UCLA faculty to affirm our commitment to academic freedom and our right – as well as the rights of students and staff – to engage in free speech, open inquiry and principled protest. We write in the face of a concerted and coordinated assault on academic freedom and free speech that is unfolding on a national scale and that is targeted in particular against institutions of higher education.

Such is the scale of this assault that a coalition of Special Rapporteurs at the United Nations recently expressed their concern at the extent to which “calls for an end to the violence and attacks in Gaza, or for a humanitarian ceasefire, or criticism of Israeli government’s policies and actions, have in too many contexts been misleadingly equated with support for terrorism or antisemitism.” This, they added, “stifles free expression, including artistic expression, and creates an atmosphere of fear to participate in public life.”

Students, staff and faculty across the country are experiencing dangerous levels of harassment and suppression of their right to free speech, and those who advocate for even the most basic rights for Palestinians have faced doxxing, death threats, deplatforming, censorship and violent intimidation. This assault on academic freedom threatens to disrupt the core mission of education, research and teaching that is at the heart of university life.

UCLA is not immune from such attacks, as demonstrated by a recent letter falsely characterizing the exercise of academic freedom, free speech and the right to protest as celebrations of violence, equating advocacy for Palestinian rights to supporting “terror,” and concluding with a demand that the UCLA administration “hold accountable” students and community members for “participating in such incitement.” Such demands are so broad and overreaching as to make any activity – including teaching and research that supports even the most basic Palestinian human rights – punishable.

Such a stance is entirely against the mission of a public university, which is to protect critical education, pedagogy and knowledge production guided by fidelity to truth, intellectual and methodological rigor, and a commitment to centering the experiences and narratives of all communities that bear the material impacts of systemic violence and oppression. We take seriously the urgent necessity to maintain and protect spaces for free intellectual exchange and knowledge production.

We affirm that a safe and healthy campus climate is impossible as long as any of our rights to academic freedom and freedom of speech are compromised, including the rights of those who criticize the policies of the Israeli state and advocate for Palestinian rights. We affirm as well that free intellectual exchange is impossible as long as students, faculty and staff continue to endure attacks for speaking out for justice in Palestine and as long as the university’s own statements continue to attach unequal value to Palestinian life, as they have done so far.

As such, we call on our UCLA campus leadership to make a strong statement of support for academic freedom by specifically affirming the rights of those who have long been facing the most concerted repression, amplified in the past several weeks – those who have come under attack for their advocacy of Palestinian rights.

We call on the university to take the following concrete steps:

  • Protect the rights of students, faculty and staff to free speech, academic freedom and First Amendment rights, including freedom of assembly;
  • Publicly reject pressure from external organizations to investigate, criminalize and suppress all members of the campus community expressing solidarity with Palestinians;
  • Publicly reject the deliberately mendacious and misleading conflation of criticism of the Israeli state with antisemitism.
  • Issue strong condemnations of anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab and anti-Muslim racist violence, harassment, doxxing, stalking and threats made to the safety of our campus community members;
  • Adequately investigate and respond to reports submitted by the campus community pertaining to anti-Palestinian violence, harassment, repression and doxxing;
  • Stop issuing one-sided statements that disregard the humanity and worth of the Palestinian people and hence by extension the Palestinian members of our campus community and those standing in solidarity with them;
  • Offer resources, services and accommodations to students, faculty, and staff affected by the genocide in Palestine and mounting repression campaigns.

Such protections are vital if we are to uphold the principles upon which academic knowledge is based.

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