University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill announced her resignation after the storm over vague and ambiguous responses during her congressional testimony on anti-Semitism on her campus against the backdrop of the Gaza war. It is the first head to fall in the wake of the strong pressure that has also rained down on the presidents of Harvard and MIT after their equally "disastrous" depositions in the House on the same issue. The clarifications and apologies the next day were not enough to dismiss the bipartisan condemnations, appease Israel's anger and prevent the flight of some wealthy donors.
Even if there is no shortage of those who support them by invoking their effort, however clumsy, to defend the First Amendment on freedom of expression: the one that even Donald Trump appeals to justify everything he says, from flirting with white supremacism to insulting Mexicans or incitement to storm the Capitol. Magill's exit comes after a group of 72 Republican lawmakers and two Democrats sent a letter to the boards of the three universities calling for the resignation of the three presidents, calling "the explosion of anti-Semitism" on college campuses "a failure of university leadership" and branding their testimony "abhorrent." More than a dozen members of the Democratic Party also signed another letter demanding that they "review and update their school policies to protect Jewish students." In recent days, the House Education Committee, led by Republicans, has opened an investigation and evoked the revocation or restriction of federal funds. A cyclone unleashed by their evasive responses when Republican Congresswoman Elise Stefanik asked whether calls for the genocide of Jews by students were not harassment under their universities' codes of conduct.
"It depends on the context.... if we move from words to actions", was the reply of all three. UPenn President Elizabeth Magill, who has already lost $100 million in scholarships to billionaire Ross Stevens, tried to clarify her words and survived an emergency board meeting for a few days but chose to quit today. Claudine Gay, president of Harvard, apologized in an interview with the student newspaper, assuring that calls for violence against Jews "have no place" in her university. She too remains in her post for now, but her correction did not prevent the resignation of David Wolfe, a rabbi and member of the anti-Semitism group at Harvard.
Sally Kornbluth, who heads MIT, has received the board's "full and unconditional support" for her "ability to unite our community... addressing anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and other forms of hatred." Civil liberties activists have spoken out in favor of the three presidents for what they see as their attempt, however clumsy, to defend free speech by avoiding being involved in a public battle against anti-Semitism, even loading slogans such as "intifada" or "from the river to the sea" with violent meanings, linking them to genocide.
"There is no 'controversial speech' exception to the First Amendment," said Jenna Leventoff of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). "The First Amendment and the Principles of LibertyAcademic policies require higher education institutions to safeguard all protected speech, even when such speech is controversial or offensive. Therefore, expressions such as 'from the river to the sea', 'no ceasefire', 'make America great again' and 'no justice, no peace' are protected." On the other hand, he points out, the case in which the speeches contain a serious and imminent threat of violence, incitement to violence or that pervasively harass someone on the basis of his or her race, sex, ethnicity, religion, national origin or other protected characteristics. "But Congress cannot expect university administrators to decide what deeply held beliefs can be censored and what opinions can be expressed."
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