ACLU defends free speech in furor over university presidents’ handling of antisemitic rhetoric on campus

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(NEW YORK) — As bipartisan pressure continued to mount Friday on three university presidents, including calls to resign and a donor withdrawing a $100 million gift, free speech advocates are defending how they responded when asked whether calls for “genocide of Jews” would violate their campus codes of conduct.

The ACLU, the organization that defends constitutional rights, is weighing in after the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and MIT faced furor for giving conditional answers to pointed questioning at a congressional hearing from New York Republican Rep. Elise Stefanik on how they would handle remarks in their university communities calling for the “genocide of Jews” and other phrases critics denounce as antisemitic.

The ACLU defended students’ right to use terms such as “from the river to the sea” — a slogan used by Hamas, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group — that supporters of Israel say means wiping Israel and its people off the map.

“There is no ‘controversial speech’ exception to the First Amendment. The First Amendment and the principles of academic freedom require higher education institutions to safeguard all protected speech — even when that speech is contentious or offensive,” Jenna Leventoff, senior policy counsel at ACLU, told ABC News.

“In fact, the First Amendment exists to protect exactly this kind of political expression. Therefore, phrases like ‘from the river to the sea,’ ‘no ceasefire,’ ‘make America great again,’ and ‘no justice, no peace’ are protected.”

The First Amendment “protects speech no matter how offensive its content,” according to the ACLU.

“Restrictions on speech by public colleges and universities amount to government censorship, in violation of the Constitution,” the ACLU said in its “speech on campus” guidance. “Such restrictions deprive students of their right to invite speech they wish to hear, debate speech with which they disagree, and protest speech they find bigoted or offensive.”

“An open society depends on liberal education, and the whole enterprise of liberal education is founded on the principle of free speech,” the ACLU continued.

The ACLU has gone further to say “Where racist, misogynist, homophobic, and transphobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech — not less — is the answer most consistent with our constitutional values.”

While the ACLU is not exactly offering full-throated support for the universities’ presidents themselves or their comments, the organization defends their decision to allow free speech on campus — no matter how controversial or targeted it may be.

After facing backlash for testifying that it would be a “context-dependent decision” on whether calls for “genocide of Jews” violated the university’s code of conduct, Penn President Liz Magill issued an apology video in which she said the university would reexamine its policies immediately.

The civil liberties group Foundation of Individual Rights and Expression said Magill’s decision to clarify and evaluate school policies is “deeply troubling” because it indicates she may alter the free speech the organization seeks to preserve. Also, it is a signal that the school is “willing to abandon its commitment to freedom of expression.”

“Were Penn to retreat from the robust protection of expressive rights, university administrators would make inevitably political decisions about who may speak and what may be said on campus,” FIRE wrote in a statement. “Such a result would undoubtedly compromise the knowledge-generating process free expression enables and for which universities exist.”

Call for presidents’ removal grow; donations could dwindle
Meanwhile, the presidents and their universities continue to face backlash from those who believe their responses were too weak and their policies in need of further scrutiny, including through an investigation led by the House committee that called them to testify, setting off the new furor.

The Republican-led House Education Committee said it will investigate the policies and disciplinary procedures at Penn, Harvard and MIT, the committee’s chairwoman, Republican Rep. Virginia Foxx, said Thursday. The probe will include “substantial document requests” and subpoenas “if a full response is not immediately forthcoming,” Foxx said in a statement.

Calls for the ouster of the presidents continues to grow — after Stefanik called for their resignations during the hearing.

Pennsylvania’s Republican members of Congress sent Penn’s Board of Trustees a letter Thursday calling for Magill’s resignation, in part, because during Tuesday’s hearing she “refused to say whether calling for the genocide of all Jewish people is bullying and harassment according to the university’s code of conduct.”

“On December 5th, she confirmed that hateful, dangerous rhetoric is welcomed on the grounds of one of the oldest higher education institutions in the United States. Her actions in front of Congress were an embarrassment to the university, its student body, and its vast network of proud alumni,” the six Republicans wrote in the letter. “Quite frankly, it was an utter disgrace to our commonwealth and the entire nation.”

New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said the three presidents should step down.

“You cannot call for the genocide of Jews, the genocide of any group of people, and not say that that’s harassment,” she told Fox News.

The Daily Pennsylvanian reports the Board of Advisors at Wharton — Penn’s business school — is calling on the school to immediately replace Magill.

Donors are also joining the call to remove the presidents — and threatening to pull their gifts if changes are not made.

Penn mega-donor Ross Stevens, the CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, said he will pull his roughly $100 million gift to the university because the of the school’s “permissive approach to hate speech calling for violence against Jews and laissez faire attitude toward harassment and discrimination against Jewish students,” according to a letter Stevens’ lawyer sent the university. Stevens’ donation could be available should Magill step down, the letter said. Axios first reported Stevens’ decision.

Another major Penn donor and former governor of Utah, Jon Huntsman, said his foundation will “close its checkbook” on future donations, according to reporting from the Daily Pennsylvanian.

A Penn spokesman said it wouldn’t comment on the personal decisions of its donors. The university declined to comment on calls for its president’s resignation.

Second gentleman Doug Emhoff, who is Jewish, spoke at the lighting of the National Menorah Thursday night where he condemned the university presidents’ remarks, saying that their “lack of moral clarity is simply unacceptable.”

“Let me be clear: When Jews are targeted because of their beliefs or identity, and when Israel is singled out because of anti-Jewish hatred, that is antisemitism and it must be condemned, and condemned unequivocally and without context,” he said.

Harvard did not immediately respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.

MIT pointed ABC News to a statement from its governing board, the Executive Committee of the MIT Corporation, that said it backs President Kornbluth “for her outstanding academic leadership, her judgment, her integrity, her moral compass, and her ability to unite our community around MIT’s core values.”

“She has done excellent work in leading our community, including in addressing antisemitism, Islamophobia, and other forms of hate, which we reject utterly at MIT. She has our full and unreserved support,” the statement said.

ABC News’ Brian Hartman contributed to this report.

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