Education

University of California intolerance policy stirs debate

Dozens are expected to voice their opinions at a forum at UCLA, which has become a focal point in the discussion of freedom of expression on campus after several high-profile incidents.
Dozens are expected to voice their opinions at a forum at UCLA, which has become a focal point in the discussion of freedom of expression on campus after several high-profile incidents.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

 Students, professors and activists are wrangling over how best to address intolerance at the University of California, with some Jewish groups arguing a more precise definition of anti-Semitism is needed and others saying it would stifle free speech.

University leaders invited public comment Monday as they work to revise a proposed policy denouncing intolerance. Jewish groups criticized the policy as not going far enough to address what they say is a spike in anti-Semitism on the university's 10 campuses.

The public system with nearly 250,000 students has become a focal point in the discussion on freedom of expression and civil liberties following several high-profile incidents, including one in which swastikas were spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity house.

Jewish students described a hostile environment Monday in which taking sides for or against Israeli policy invites harassment.

"We understand that the university has an obligation to ensure freedom of speech," said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and director of the AMCHA Initiative, which investigates cases of anti-Semitism on college campuses. "However, they also have an obligation to ensure safety and civil rights."

Rossman-Benjamin spoke ahead of the event. She and other Jewish groups want UC to adopt the U.S. State Department's definition of anti-Semitism.

UC President Janet Napolitano said in a radio interview in May that she believed the university system should adopt the State Department's definition. Her remarks drew criticism from free speech advocates and those critical of Israel's policy toward Palestinians, saying they feared the university policy could be used to silence them.

"I do believe it is the most authoritative and well-respected definition of anti-Semitism that is consistent with the understanding of the vast majority of the Jewish community," said Rossman-Benjamin, who is scheduled to speak Monday.

The proposed policy had defined intolerance as "unwelcome conduct" motivated by discrimination or hatred toward a group or individuals. It had outlined various acts including harassment, hate speech and derogatory use of cultural symbols but did not address any particular group.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it would be difficult for the board's working group to draft a policy that more precisely defines intolerance without infringing on free speech protections.

"In all but the most extreme circumstances, they're going to find that the First Amendment is an obstacle that they cannot surmount and shouldn't," he told the Associated Press.

"When push comes to shove, they'll find themselves sacrificing freedom of speech, freedom of expression and academic freedom," Scheer told KPCC.

This story has been updated.