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The Brandeis University speech impediment

Published: February 9, 2007
Section: Opinions


The most remarkable thing about the Carter-Dershowitz event is how swimmingly it went. The university populationto its creditdid not descend into the customary hysteria that usually surrounds discussion here of the Israel-Palestine conflict. In fact, discounting the most extreme and fanatical factions, the only hysterical reactions were these: first, President Jehuda Reinharz babyishly refusing to come to what is arguably the most important event in Brandeis history since its founding;

second, the establishment of a committee to screen discussion and debate on the Middle East at Brandeis University.

The committee is the brain-child of Dean of Student Life Rick Sawyer and the personal project of Student Union President Alison Schwartzbaum. Its purpose is unclear. In fact, everything about the committee is unclear. Since we were informed that our events would be indefinitely on hold until the committee issued a ruling, my colleagues and I have been engaged in an endless quest to find out everything from the fundamentalsWhy do Brandeis students need a committee to decide for them who can speak and who cannot?to even the most basic and presumably public factsWhich students have been elected to serve on the committee?and neither Sawyer nor Schwartzbaumnor indeed anyonewill provide answers. We are therefore caught in the bureaucratic to-and-fro, and there does not seem to be an end in sight.

What is clear is that no student or student organization will be able to bring a speaker to campus without the approval of the committee, an indubitable outrage to free speech, to be sure. The Brandeis community does not need a select group of students and facultya vanguardto meet behind closed doors and determine, on the “community's” behalf, what is admissible and inadmissible into the public discourse;

what's “communal” about that? This is the essence of paternalistic censorship, and it's positively nauseating, especially given that President Reinharz was quoted in the Boston Globe as saying, “anyone… is welcome to come on the campus of Brandeis University to talk about anything under the sun.”

The situation had gotten so ridiculous that we now have Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard University, Alan Dershowitz, weighing in. Alan Dershowitz, the man who, on January 23, 2007, said to a crowd of 1,700 Brandeis University students, I think a debate would have been better. I think a debate would have been more informative for students. I think a debate would have been more educational. Alan Dershowitz, of whom Brandeis own Louis Stulberg Professor of Law and Politics Jeffrey Abramson said, [I]t is a great pleasure to have Alan Dershowitz here to, in fact, begin and engage the debate.

Is this the same Alan Dershowitz who declinedthree times!an invitation to debate Professor Norman Finkelstein here at Brandeis? Indeed it is;

an extraordinary occurrence in light of all the elevated rhetoric about his unwavering commitment to free speech and debate.

I will be happy to release the emails between Professor Dershowitz and myself to any interested party, but I should like to say two things more in closing: first;

I will leave the defense of Finkelstein to Finkelstein, who is more than capable of looking after himself;

and second, that neither Dershowitz nor Sawyer nor Schwartzbaum has the right to restrict the range of debate on this campus, and that any committee member who cares genuinely about the freedom of speech will commit herself to dissolving it [the committee]permanentlyas a first order of business.