Lesson in free speech for Jewish students

By Brooke Goldstein, March 22, 2012
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I'm obligated to argue in defence of free speech. Members of the Jewish community, namely Leeds University JSoc, the Union of Jewish Students and Jeremy Newmark (the chief executive of the Jewish Leadership Council), would rather cancel a speech they've never heard and publish false accusations against a person they've never met, than provide a forum where students may learn about free speech and debate it on its merits.

The world is rife with controversy over the Middle East and intimidation of anyone brave enough to speak truth about it. In civil society, controversies can be openly discussed. In repressive societies they cannot. In the extreme, controversies can spark civil uprisings and wars. But should the fear of negative student reaction result in the gagging of free speech on campus? I think not. If the threat of hostility is the new test before airing legal arguments, what freedoms and rights will we protect? Exploring the law shouldn't get in the way of working towards a deeper understanding in a university environment. Especially in higher academia, one expects to learn from how others think even though they may disagree with their conclusions.

Apparently Leeds JSoc and the parties mentioned above don't get that. For they banded together to support the cancellation of a talk I was due to deliver at Leeds University on March 12, at the invitation of Leeds JSoc, about the very topic of stifling free speech on the Middle East. The irony is not lost on me.

I am a New York City-based human rights lawyer, director of two charitable nonprofit organisations and grandchild of Holocaust survivors. I have been invited to brief the White House, State Department, Pentagon, U.S. Central Command and the UK Parliament (thrice) on issues of asymmetric warfare, libel law, and human rights. I'm a regular commentator on television and have published articles in a variety of sources. I've worked with Christians and Muslims to defend civil liberties and expose those who violate them.

The legal system does not mean a lawyer assumes the views of her client, no matter how offensive

While still a second year law student, at considerable risk to my life, I travelled to the West Bank to film interviews with the leaders of terrorist organisations, families of suicide bombers, teachers at terrorist-run schools and children imprisoned for attempting to blow themselves up. My interviews comprise the film, The Making of a Martyr, honoured by the UN with an award for Best Documentary and currently broadcast on television stations around the globe. I made the film to expose one of the most egregious, widely-spread yet persistently ignored human rights violations of our time: the illegal, state-sponsored indoctrination and recruitment of innocent Muslim children towards violence.

Following the release of my film, I founded the Children's Rights Institute, which is dedicated to raising awareness and legally combating the employment of children in armed combat. I've arranged pro-bono legal representation and financial support for persons sued for speaking publicly about militant Islam, terrorism and their sources of financing. I currently direct The Lawfare Project, a legal think tank that monitors and facilitates a response to the abuse of the law as a weapon of war against liberal democracies.

I've never been excluded from speaking at any venue or accused of harbouring dangerous views until Leeds JSoc decided to call off my talk. Prior to the event's cancellation, they never contacted me to discuss the content of my speech. I only heard about the cancellation from a third party 48 hours before I was scheduled to appear. In their published defence, Leeds JSoc did not quote anything I have said or written to justify their cancellation.

The three reasons given for the revocation were that I provided legal services to the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, linked to an article about Wilders on a website called "Gates of Vienna", and that a member of my staff blogged about the controversy surrounding a film entitled The Third Jihad.

I provided my services to Wilders because I believe the proliferation of different viewpoints, even false ones, is necessary for societies to determine truth. Governments should not enforce modern-day blasphemy laws that punish offensive speech; this is something for the marketplace of ideas to sort out. Moreover, legal representation does not mean a lawyer assumes the views of her client, no matter how offensive.

Wilders has since been acquitted of all "hate speech" charges by the Dutch government. I'm disappointed Leeds JSoc did not exhibit the intellectual curiosity to contact me and challenge my contentions on one of the most pertinent issues of our time. Namely, what limits can be placed on free speech and what is acceptable criticism of religion in free societies?

"Gates of Vienna" is a blogging website that, allows "a variety of opinions. Comments made on [the] blog do not necessarily represent the views of the blog's owners." I think it is ridiculous to argue that I should be held accountable for the entire content of the website, because The Lawfare Project linked to one article. The news page of The Lawfare Project's website links to hundreds of articles in similar fashion.

The Third Jihad is a film narrated by a Muslim-American doctor that discusses some of the issues we are facing today with Islamist terrorism and the application of Sharia law within Western democracies. Leeds JSoc thinks the film is "despicable and abhorrent". The Lawfare Project's blog, authored by a Muslim woman, analyses this precise controversy and is an example of the exchange of ideas that apparently Leeds JSoc wants to shut down.

F or the three reasons above Leeds JSoc (which claims to have "nothing personally" against me) has asserted that I am unfair and immoderate, my work is in violation of their morals and values, my representation of one client is "beyond the realm of acceptable political discourse," and it is no longer happy to host me on campus.

I'm curious to know what pressures were exerted that led to the rescinding of an invitation extended voluntarily.

Leeds JSoc, on its campaigns blog, has likened me to chametz that must be cleaned out of the house before Pesach and alleged that my speaking would jeopardise community relations and endanger the welfare of Leeds students. If the peace on campus is so tenuous that it justifies protecting students from public dialogue lest their wellbeing be threatened, doesn't one have a duty to confront this reality and change it?

It's a problem when students are more concerned with keeping quiet than creating an environment for legal debate. Perhaps the communal bonds Leeds JSoc has been able to forge are so weak they will shatter if a pro-Israel speaker is invited on campus. If this is the case, they should ask themselves if these relationships are worth saving at the price of free speech.

Who it is that Leeds JSoc is worried not to offend or break ties with it has not stated. Certainly it's not me or my associates, who, according to Leeds JSoc, include "individuals and organisations that have very detrimental views and would not be allowed on our campus". Leeds JSoc did not mention who these are, though some of my friends and colleagues are on the receiving end of death threats for their courage to speak openly about the oppression of human beings in the Islamist world. These people, according to Mark Sewards, lead sabbatical officer of Leeds University Union, (who decided to chime in without clarifying to whom exactly he was referring), are "anti-Muslim propagandists" whose friendship more than justified Leeds JSoc's decision.

Such accusations are reckless and unfounded. The only "anti-Muslim propagandists" I know are the ones who turn a blind eye to the murder of innocent Muslim men, women and children for the sake of political correctness. I challenge Sewards and Leeds JSoc to put forth the names of people they accuse of being such.

All this leads me to question - who else would Leeds JSoc deem fit for cancellation? Alan Dershowitz for his defense of neo-Nazis? Ayaan Hirsi Ali for her book Infidel or her film Submission - the latter of which highlights passages from the Koran instructing men to beat their wives? How about Dr Zhudi Jasser, a brave Muslim doctor who teaches the distinction between Islam as a personal religion and Islamism which seeks to impose Sharia law? What about New York police chief Raymond Kelly, former mayor of New York Rudy Giuliani and former US CIA director Jim Woolsey, all distinguished persons who appear in the movie The Third Jihad?

And by Leeds JSoc's own logic, the British politicians who hosted me in Parliament must be judged guilty by association with someone whose associates are so despicable. Where does it end?

Jeremy Newmark, a "community leader" who "supports our students and empowers them," swiftly posted on Twitter in support of the stifling. He displayed the utmost deference for student autonomy regardless of the implications. Even the Birkbeck JSoc was kind enough to illustrate this point, tweeting: "It's not about whether it was the right decision, it's about the principle of students knowing best." Newmark failed to seek out a middle ground and never contacted me before publicly supporting the position that I would cause peril to the welfare of Jewish students.

If the JLC affords complete deference to any decision of a student body based on the fact that they are, simply, a student body, then what does it stand for? While Mr Newmark may believe Leeds JSoc has acted autonomously, its actions are more likely dictated by a campus environment that seems to have fostered a chilling effect on free speech.

I hope Leeds JSoc understands that the issue is not whether a group of students has the right to determine their own destiny, as they have tried to articulate it. Rather, the focus should be on the wisdom of the decision, as well as how they've conducted themselves. Yet according to the students, "a decision was made, reasons were given and that should have been the end of the matter…Leeds JSoc should be above reproach…We are Leeds JSoc, we bow to no one."

They must understand there are consequences to inviting, then cancelling, speakers as much as there are to hosting them. No one is above reproach or the law. A good lesson is to always be prepared to answer for your actions and, if need be, defend them until you've overcome your opponents reasoning with logic, not emotion.

I know the students did not want controversy and were apprehensive of any backlash, whether justified or not, that might have ensued from hosting a speaker who talks about the murder of Muslim children as suicide bombers and the sanctity of free speech while at it. For that I do not fault them. But I'm disappointed at the attempted whitewashing of what is indeed a serious issue: the intimidation of Jewish societies and the stifling of pro-human rights dialogue on campuses. Leeds JSoc made the mistake of offering up three straw arguments as a false excuse for justifiable apprehension, and they insulted a friend in the process - me.

Given the ensuing vitriol one wonders whether the harm caused was more valuable than whatever was gained by refusing me. It is obvious that all of our time and resources would have be better spent responding to the real enemies of freedom; or is that too politically incorrect to admit?

I have offered Leeds JSoc members free tickets to the play "Can We Talk About This?" at the National Theatre. We can grab a drink afterwards and continue the debate. If Leeds JSoc feels as strongly about free dialogue as they do about chametz, they should accept my invitation. The group's president was kind enough to offer a reimbursement of my travel costs and assured me, prior to publishing its statement, that neither she, nor the society, felt any hostility. I hope the feeling is still mutual and Leeds JSoc understands that I have based my career on defending the free speech rights of my clients. So it follows that I must, at the very least, defend my own.

Brooke Goldstein is director of The Lawfare Project

Last updated: 4:53pm, March 22 2012