There are some prominent conservatives who are accusing some of us of embracing cancel culture for wanting a moratorium on certain campus organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Tucker Carlson, Candace Owens, and even the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression are criticizing the suspensions of these student groups on some college campuses. In Florida, Governor Ron DeSantis has banned SJP at public universities, and the administrations of some private institutions like Columbia and Brandeis have also suspended them. But the comparison to cancel culture is entirely unfounded and there is no inconsistency between our usual free speech absolutism and our call for a crackdown on these groups.
Cancel culture is all about censorship of ideas that just make some people feel uncomfortable. Left-wing purveyors of this kind of suppression of speech say that all non-conforming expression is a form of violence. So just misgendering a person with the wrong pronoun is, by their logic, making someone feel uncomfortable and therefore an act of violence. In fact, they literally call it an act of “violence.” The problem here is that no violence has been committed, nor is any violence being promoted, encouraged, or celebrated. All that is happening is that the speaker disagrees with people’s beliefs about themselves.
Likewise, if pro-Palestinian activists want to say that the Jews have no legitimate claim to the land and that they are occupying a place that rightly belongs to Arabs, I disagree with them vehemently but would not advocate for their silencing. It may make some of us feel uncomfortable, but that speech is still not violence.
But SJP’s umbrella group, as well as many of its chapters, have literally promoted, encouraged, and celebrated actual violence. I mean the actual murder, torture, rape, and maiming of innocent non-combatants. When they say they applaud the Second Intifada, celebrate the actions of Hamas on October 7, issue a toolkit for the Al-Asqa Flood, chant “From the river to the sea” – which is a call for genocide – and use tactics of intimidation such as barricading Jewish students and faculty inside buildings or preventing their entry into them, that rises to a whole different level from merely making people feel uncomfortable.
My position has nothing to do with whether their opinions conform to my beliefs. In the past, I have defended even Louis Farrakhan’s right to speak. I have defended Elon Musk allowing antisemitic rhetoric on his platform. If Jew-haters want to use antisemitic tropes and blood libels, I don’t like it, but they are free to do it in America. But when the death of civilian Jews both in Israel and the Diaspora is promoted, encouraged, and celebrated as a moral good, that’s where I think an appropriate line can be drawn.
It is also important to remember that campus organizations receive resources from their administrations. They are required to be registered to receive sanction as a student club. Those that are registered have access to university resources and funding. Student groups that literally call for terrorism should not be supplied anything by their universities. They should not be provided a faculty advisor, use of campus space, or subsidy for their activities.
From what I am told by civil liberties attorneys, these organizations may indeed win in court. This is particularly true of the ones in Florida because they are public institutions. But while legally they may have a winnable case, morally they do not.
The late philosophy professor Sidney Hook distinguished between “academic freedom” and “academic anarchy” when he criticized universities for permitting communist indoctrination and other Soviet support on their campuses. I believe his distinction applies just as aptly to groups that support Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Freedom of speech is not a license to support terrorists. Drawing this line is not the same as cancel culture.