Controversy has erupted at the University of Massachusetts Amherst over a planned panel discussion about Palestinian human rights, with three Jewish students going so far as to file a lawsuit in an effort to have the event moved off campus, arguing it is anti-Semitic.
The episode is the latest in a series of controversies over free speech playing out on college campuses across the country. Last week protests erupted at Amherst College over a speech by President Trump’s former attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
The panel in question at UMass is set for Saturday evening. It is organized and funded by Media Education Foundation, a Northampton organization headed by Sut Jhally, a UMass Amherst communications professor.
Four panelists are set to argue that pro-Israel groups have tried to silence Palestinian points of view in the United States. The event will feature Roger Waters of the rock group Pink Floyd along with Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, cochair of the Women’s March; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor who was fired by CNN for pro-Palestine remarks; and David Zirin, a sports editor at The Nation magazine. It will be moderated by commentator Vijay Prashad.
Jhally, the panel organizer, said the event grew out of a documentary he made called “The Occupation of the American Mind;” Waters narrated that film.
Jhally said the backlash the event has sparked is particularly ironic.
“The reaction to the event is exactly the reason why the event was organized in the first place,” he said.
UMass officials have said they will allow the panel to take place.
“UMass Amherst is committed to fostering a community of dignity and respect and rejects all forms of bigotry. The campus is also firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom. As such, and as is required of a public institution under the First Amendment, UMass Amherst applies a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations for the purpose of holding events,” the university said in a statement.
These points of view played out in Suffolk Superior Court in Boston on Monday, after an attorney filed a motion to have the event moved off-campus, arguing that it was discriminatory to Jewish people.
Karen Hurvitz, the attorney for the three Jewish students, argued that Jewish people are a legally protected class because they are a race.
“The First Amendment is not an unconditional endorsement of any speech at any time of any content,” Hurvitz said.
Judge Robert Ullmann agreed, but he said he is reluctant to shut down a speaking event preemptively when no one is in danger of physical harm, simply because of the topic. There is no precedent for such a move, he said. The judge plans to make an official ruling later this week after another hearing on Thursday at 2 p.m.
The controversy has drawn attention from outside groups as well. Outside the courthouse, the Western Massachusetts chapter of the national organization Jewish Voices for Peace gathered in support of the panel. That group filed its own legal document on behalf of the panelists, seeking to intervene in the suit.
“That’s the point of a university, to be open to debate,” said Sarah Wunsch, a retired civil rights attorney and member of the group.
Attorney Rachel Weber argued on behalf of that group before the judge, saying that prohibiting the panel would also do a disservice to students.
“They came to a place of learning to be surrounded by a range of ideas,” Weber told the judge.
Denise Barton, an attorney for UMass, also filed a brief and spoke in court.
“While we might not like the speaker, might not like the message, we as a public university don’t get to judge,” Barton told the judge.
Student groups have come down on both sides of the event as well.
Stephanie Margolis, president of UMass Amherst Student Alliance for Israel, said her group opposes the specific speakers, not the fact that the event is taking place. She said her club does not support the lawsuit but is angry that Waters is among the panelists because her group considers him anti-Semitic.
“There are Jewish students on this campus who don’t feel safe right now and who don’t feel comfortable expressing their Judaism,” said Margolis, a junior from Acton studying hospitality and Judaic studies. “It calls into question should this event be happening, but it has every right to.”
In response to the event, her club organized an event called “Dare to Discuss,” to encourage students to ask questions about the conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Nora Cameron, a senior studying public health and member of the club UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine, said her group supports the event.
Cameron said last year Trump’s former spokesman Sean Spicer came to campus, a controversial appearance that brought much protest. Yet, she said, he was allowed to speak.
“We definitely recommend students, no matter what their opinions or ideas on this issue, just come to the event and at least listen,” she said.