The University of Southern California is under fire this week after a student tweeted that she wants “to kill every motherf–king zionist” as well as other postings denounced as anti-Semitic. The student, Yasmeen Mashayekh, is listed as a diversity and inclusion (DEI) senator for the University of Southern California Viterbi Graduate Student Association. The school has refused to take action against Mashayekh, but other students have objected that the school would not have been so circumspect if Mashayekh said that she wanted to kill others like BLM supporters.
Mashayekh also tweeted in June “Death to Israel and its b–ch the US” and later declared that “if you are not for the complete destruction of Israel and the occupation forces then you’re anti-Palestinian.” In a May tweet, she stated “Yes I f–king love hamas now stfu.” On June 21, she tweeted “Zionists are going to f–king pay.”
When asked about her calls for violence, Mashayekh was unapologetic on a podcast by Palestine in America on Dec. 2: “I still don’t feel any pressure to change any stances or apologize for anything at all.”
Other students have objected. Molly Davis, a student at USC, told Fox News that “while students are being forced to go through a virtual ‘diversity’ training, DEI senators are tweeting how they want to literally end the lives of humans who support the Jewish people. It’s dark and severely twisted.”
Sixty-six current and former faculty members at USC signed a letter to the university’s leadership, calling on it to “publicly and explicitly rebuke Yasmeen Mashayekh for her offensive behavior and to distance USC from her hateful statements.”
However, a USC spokesperson told Fox News that the statements are “disturbing” but legally protected.
“The individual is a member of a graduate student group that is self-organized, elects its own council members and does not set the university’s policies. Even though the statements at issue are legally protected, we understand they are disturbing. USC rejects and condemns hatred in all its forms.”
I agree that these comments are protected speech. I would oppose an effort to expel a student for posting such views on social media as an infringement of free speech.
That said, there is a striking contrast in how universities (including public universities) respond to controversial postings.
We have previously discussed the concern that academics are allowed (correctly) to voice extreme views on social justice and police misconduct, but that there is less tolerance for the voicing of opposing views on such subjects. There were analogous controversies at the University of California and Boston University, where there have been criticism of such a double standard, even in the face of criminal conduct. Some intolerant statements against students are deemed free speech while others are deemed hate speech or the basis for university action. There is a lack of consistency or uniformity in these actions which turn on the specific groups left aggrieved by out-of-school comments. There is also a tolerance of faculty and students tearing down fliers and stopping the speech of conservatives. Indeed, even faculty who assaulted pro-life advocates was supported by faculty and lionized for her activism.
Nevertheless, in the past, I have defended extremist views on academic freedom grounds like those of University of Rhode Island professor Erik Loomis, who rationalized the murder of a conservative protester and said that he saw “nothing wrong” with such acts of violence. (Loomis also writes for the site “Lawyers, Guns, and Money.”)
Notably, despite his past views on the killing of conservative protesters, the New York Times still published Loomis on its opinion page (after promising not to run future op-eds by people like Sen. Tom Cotton).
I have defended faculty who have made similarly disturbing comments on “detonating white people,” denouncing police, calling for Republicans to suffer, strangling police officers, celebrating the death of conservatives, calling for the killing of Trump supporters, supporting the murder of conservative protesters and other statements.
Yet, there is a zero tolerance for statements or jokes from the right of the political spectrum. We recently discussed how St. Joseph’s University refused to renew a contract for a professor who actually prevailed in such a free speech fight. A conservative North Carolina professor faced calls for termination over controversial tweets and was pushed to retire. Dr. Mike Adams, a professor of sociology and criminology, had long been a lightning rod of controversy. In 2014, we discussed his prevailing in a lawsuit that alleged discrimination due to his conservative views. He was then targeted again after an inflammatory tweet calling North Carolina a “slave state.” That led to his being pressured to resign with a settlement. He then committed suicide just days before his last day as a professor.
We have also seen universities remain silent as student government bodies and boards engage in blatant content-based discrimination in exercising their control over budgets or publications (here and here and here). That includes denying funding for a speech of former Vice President Michael Pence.
Student publications are firing writers and editors who write columns espousing dissenting views on police abuse or other subjects. This pattern has repeatedly itself at Wisconsin, Syracuse, Oklahoma State, and other schools. Student columnists have been formally condemned at schools like Georgetown and both faculty and students have sought to eliminate whole publications at schools like Dartmouth as “incubators of hate.”
It often seems like schools like USC see the free speech values with clarity in dealing with the speech of individuals like Mashayekh. Yet, these schools are silent or actively engaged in the targeting of speech from other perspectives. This content-based discrimination is the scourge of free speech. The record of most schools show that their tolerance for controversial speech is based largely on the content of the viewpoints or the groups being targeted. Consider the call “to kill every motherf–king ______.” If you fill in that blank with an assortment of other groups or identities, it is doubtful that USC would have reacted in the same way.
The test of free speech is whether it is defended universally, not episodically. Mashayekh likely felt little concern over whether she would be punished for her hateful statements. However, many at USC do not have such faith or luxury in speaking their minds on contemporary issues.