When Speech Crosses Over Into Harassment: Using the Law to Fight Anti-Semitism on Campus
Growing up as a Jewish American I often felt a sense of guilt about not living in the Promised Land and sharing in the development and protection of what I consider to be an integral part of the destiny of my nation. For a variety of reasons I have thus far chosen to stay in the land that I (also) love, America. But I believe that God gives everyone talents and the chance to use them, and I have never stopped thinking about ways in which I might be able to somehow do just a little something for my people.
While teaching Law and Religion at Emory University, I had the amazing opportunity to get to know Dr. Jay Sekulow, Chief Counsel of the American Center for Law and Justice, and one of the main architects of modern religious liberty in the United States. Aside from the ACLJ’s impressive national work and numerous Supreme Court victories, in 2009, Dr. Sekulow successfully presented arguments in support of Israel’s legal position under international law and the law of armed conflict before the Office of the Prosecutor at the International Criminal Court in The Hague. With Israel now facing yet another round of charges after Operation Protective Edge, I saw an opportunity for someone with my background to finally do something meaningful. I asked Dr. Sekulow if I could get involved with the firm and was graciously accepted on board as an Attorney of Counsel dealing mostly with international issues.
Over the last several months though, another problem has become increasingly concerning right here at home. As many of you know, activities and events fostering an environment of intimidation and marginalization of Jewish citizens have seen a marked upswing on college and university campuses around the country. As a non-profit organization dedicated to protecting constitutional liberties—especially the rights to free speech and religious expression—by engaging legal and legislative issues through advocacy, education, and litigation, the ACLJ has had years of experience negotiating the lines between rights and wrongs. We firmly believe that in both public and private institutions, the freedom of speech, even offensive speech, should be cherished and respected as part of what makes our democracy so great. But as the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights has made clear, there are times when speech crosses over into harassment, and invidious discrimination. The ACLJ does not believe in stifling freedoms, but we do believe in following the law and making sure that no one country or people are singled out for attack. While some may argue that in practice these are difficult lines to draw, we firmly disagree, and will continue to point out that there are clear bright lines that already exist. Organizations must be vigilant in making sure that any free and protected speech in any forums that they open does not cross the line into hateful anti-Semitic and illegal remarks, the kind of commentary that could easily make one group of people uncomfortable, and limit their ability to participate.
Regardless of one’s nuanced stance on Israeli or American politics — and surely many of us differ — there are some important goals we can all share. The ACLJ has committed itself to the following statement: We will fight the discriminatory effects of the current anti-Semitic trend, in both the campus and commercial contexts, by using existing legal structures, and lobbying for additional legislative measures, to ensure the civil and human rights of the Jewish and pro-Israel community are protected and enforced. To that end, just a few weeks back we proudly launched the Initiative to Secure Rights and Equality in Law: the ISRAEL Coalition. We believe that this issue is bigger than politics, and so in partnership with other organizations and groups from across the political spectrum we have vowed to be there when students, faculty, employees, or any other members of any other organizations are threatened or harassed for being Jewish, or Israeli.
I hereby extend the following offer to any and all organizations and individuals on this list: if you would like to join this coalition, and support our mission we welcome you. And if you or someone you know is having a problem of this sort, please do let me know so that we can try and help.
Rabbi Dr. Moshe Goldfeder, Esq. is Senior Lecturer at Emory Law School and the Spruill Family Senior Fellow at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion. He is in-house counsel and Director of Israel Strategy for Hillels of Georgia, and Chabad of Georgia, and is of Counsel to Jewish Friends of the American Armed Forces (a military chaplaincy group), and the American Center for Law and Justice. Moshe is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum (Class 20). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.