Controversy Over Free Speech Roils Berkeley Law School

Suzanne Potter | California News Service
Students at UC Berkeley protest the occupation of Gaza by Israeli forces. Photo Credit: LSJP

Pro-Palestinian advocates are speaking out to support student groups at the University of California-Berkeley Law School who voted not to host Zionist speakers, saying it is a matter of free speech.

In August a group called Law Students for Justice in Palestine asked other student groups to pledge not to invite speakers who support the Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands, and fourteen groups out of 100 agreed.

Dylan Saba, staff attorney at Palestine Legal who is Palestinian and Jewish, said the backlash the students are facing is unfair, and could harm their future job prospects.

“These students are being smeared in the media left right and center,” Saba contended. “I think it’s very critical to affirm that these students have the right to do this and to push back against these kinds of bad faith attempts to smear this as anti-Semitism.”

The charges of anti-Semitism began with an article in the Jewish Journal by Ken Marcus, a former Trump official from the Office of Civil Rights, who claimed Berkeley has established “Jewish free zones.”

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the Law School, who is Jewish, called for academic freedom, tolerance and civility, and wrote in the Daily Beast he would consider sanctions for groups violating “the Law School’s rules … that no speaker can be excluded for being Jewish or for holding particular views.”

Saba said the bylaw would exclude speakers based on political expression, not religion. He added there’s a double standard when it comes to groups supporting the boycott, divest, sanctions movement, known as BDS.

“A reproductive-justice group would not be expected to host an anti-abortion speaker,” Saba pointed out. “In that same way, groups committed to Palestinian Liberation should not be expected that they have to host someone who opposes those values.”

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