The widespread media attention to recent events at Berkeley Law are stunningly misleading and inaccurate.
An opinion column in the Jewish Journal, which is titled, “Berkeley Develops Jewish-Free Zones,” paints a grossly misleading picture of what happened at Berkeley Law.
To state it plainly: There is no “Jewish-Free Zone” at Berkeley Law or on the UC-Berkeley campus. The Law School’s rules are clear that no speaker can be excluded for being Jewish or for holding particular views. I know of no instance where this has been violated.
Allow me to explain the controversy that sparked this misguided furor.
At the beginning of the school year in late August, a student group at Berkeley Law, Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), asked other student groups to adopt a by-law condemning Israel. LSJP called for the student groups to pledge not to invite speakers who supported Israel’s “apartheid” policies, to support the Boycott, Divest, Sanction movement, and to participate in training about the plight of Palestinians.
As the dean, I quickly responded with a letter to all student organizations strongly objecting to this.
My letter said, “It is troubling to broadly exclude a particular viewpoint from being expressed. Indeed, taken literally, this would mean that I could not be invited to speak because I support the existence of Israel, though I condemn many of its policies. Chancellor Carol Christ has also spoken about how the boycott, divest, and sanction movement ‘poses a direct and serious threat to the academic freedom of our students and faculty, as well as the unfettered exchange of ideas and perspectives on our campus, including debate and discourse regarding conflicts in the Middle East.’”
I followed this up with a message to the entire Law School community: “The First Amendment does not allow us to exclude any viewpoints and I believe that it is crucial that universities be places where all ideas can be voiced and discussed. In addition, the Law School has an ‘all-comers’ policy, which means that every student group must allow any student to join and all student group organized events must be open to all students.”
The issue quickly faded at the Law School.
A handful of student organizations—fewer than 10 out of over 100—initially adopted the by-law. But the rest rejected it or ignored it. Some that quickly accepted it are now reconsidering that. Most importantly, no group has violated the Law School’s policy and excluded a speaker on account of being Jewish or holding particular views about Israel. Such conduct, of course, would be subject to sanctions.
At this stage, all some student groups have done is express their strong disagreement with Israel’s policies. That is their First Amendment right. I find their statement offensive, but they have the right to say it. To punish these student groups, or students, for their speech would clearly violate the Constitution.
Ironically, most students and faculty in the Law School were unaware of this controversy or paid little attention to it. After the first couple of weeks of the semester, it was virtually never mentioned. But some media outlets have brought it worldwide attention.
I am convinced it is because they have a narrative they want to tell about higher education generally—and Berkeley, in particular—being antisemitic. They wanted to use this incident to fit their narrative, even though the facts simply don’t support the story they want to tell.
There is no doubt that the on-going crisis in the Middle East understandably generates deep feelings on all sides. Some of our students and faculty are strongly critical of Israel’s policies and are concerned about the plight of the Palestinians. Some ardently defend Israel’s actions. And others hold a myriad of views. This is true at Berkeley Law, on the Berkeley campus, and at every university.
What is the proper role of the university? To be a place where all ideas and views are discussed.
At my Law School, the Law Students for Justice in Palestine bring in speakers and hold programs to express their views. At the same time, the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies holds many programs. Just last week, Knesset Member Yossi Shain spent a week on the Berkeley campus and spoke of his recent book, as well as meeting with students and faculty.
But this is not the story the media wants to tell. It is frustrating and sad that their version has no relationship to reality.
Freedom of speech, dissent, and debate is alive and well at Berkeley. And there is no “Jewish-Free Zone” at Berkeley Law or on the Berkeley campus. Period.
Erwin Chemerinsky is the Dean and Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law, University of California, Berkeley School of Law.