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Free Speech or Harassment?

A UCLA librarian's anti-Israel e-mail and subsequent suspension trigger campus debate.


by Merav Tassa

October 25, 2001 | 8:00 pm

When UCLA librarian Jonnie Hargis this month sent out an e-mail to everyone on the library's list, he had no idea the chaos he'd cause on campus.

Hargis wrote in his e-mail that United States taxpayers "fund and arm a state called Israel, which is responsible for untold thousands upon thousands of deaths of Muslim Palestinian children and civilians." He ended his message with: "So, who are the 'terrorists' anyway?"

Library officials promptly suspended Hargis from work for a week without pay because his e-mail was in violation of university library policy, which prohibits unsolicited messages containing political, religious or patriotic messages to be sent to library department lists.

"Your recent e-mail, which was distributed to the entire unit, demonstrated a lack of sensitivity that went beyond incivility and became harassment," Lorraine Kram, head of reference and instructional services at the library, wrote Hargis in her letter of suspension: "Your comments contribute to a hostile environment ... for your other co-workers."

The incident brought to the forefront the issue of free speech on campus.

A student backlash broke out, and the eruption also became an impetus for further anti-Israel sentiment. Angry students wrote letters to the Daily Bruin denouncing Hargis' suspension and supporting his views on Israel.

"Many people in the United States over the years have been persecuted for expressing displeasure with the United States aiding and abetting the Jewish State," wrote student Tom Moran. "This is just one more example of the spiteful campaign against anyone who dares to tell it like it is about Israel," he wrote.

As UCLA students tried to make sense of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the administration, during a UCLA memorial service, urged students to refrain from blaming ethnic communities and discriminating against them. While discrimination against the Muslim and Arab American populations at UCLA was mentioned in particular, verbal attacks on the Jewish population and the policies of the United States toward Israel also received attention.

UCLA for some years has been a hotbed of anti-Israel sentiment and activity, escalating last year with the start of the al-Aksa Intifada. The Muslim Student Association (MSA) held a weeklong student government-sponsored anti-Zionist campaign offering propaganda that equated Zionism with racism, hatred and murder. Billboards all over campus gave statistics on Palestinian death tolls and compared Israel to apartheid South Africa. Despite protests from UCLA's Jewish population that these rallies -- paid for by student money and upheld by student government -- were not only anti-Zionist but anti-Semitic, nothing was done because of free speech issues.

This year, MSA has been quiet on the topic of Israel, concentrating instead on hate crimes directed toward Arabs and Muslims, and generally keeping a low profile. Hillel at UCLA, which usually responds to anti-Israel propaganda from the MSA by promoting educational programming and holding discussions on the situation in Israel, does not anticipate much anti-Israel activity, says its director, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller.

That situation is mirrored nationwide. "Hillel directors at universities throughout the United States report a quieting of anti-Israel rhetoric in recent weeks," the Jewish Telegraphic Agency recently reported.

Bruins for Israel, an advocacy group associated with American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), plans to address the issue of anti-Israel sentiment on campus this year by trying to educate students. Bruins plans a pro-Israel week and hands out fliers daily to help Jewish students become knowledgeable enough to respond to anti-Zionist propaganda.

While instances of anti-Israel activity are not nearly as abundant as those in previous years, the question arises: At a public university, where should the line between free speech and discrimination be drawn?

UCLA has always and without exception strongly upheld the right of free speech, said Albert Carnesale, UCLA's chancellor. "Academic freedom is a bedrock of education in a free society. Through open debate, discourse, and study, more speech, not less, is a way in which all views may be explored and argued," Carnesale said.

The suspension of Hargis prompted many UCLA students to feel that free speech was under attack, while others believed the suspension was necessary in order to end discrimination and make the university a safe place for all.

Carnesale said, "It is my hope that the faculty and staff at UCLA will encourage discourse among those groups who seem to be at odds with one another. It is through discussion and debate that our understanding of one another will allow us to create an environment of both welcome and safety for all of our students."

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