Want To Protest SJP’s Conference At The U? Don’t Show Up

Here’s something I’d like people to know about me: I’m a free speech absolutist. It doesn’t seem like that is an overly revelatory statement for someone who has been a professional journalist for as long as I have, but there you have it. 

I feel like it’s as good a time as any to out myself because this weekend is the National Students for Justice in Palestine conference at the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus. And I don’t have a problem with it.

Now, I do have a problem with any organization, group, or person who says Israel shouldn’t exist. I think those people are simply wrong. But I don’t think their voices should be stifled from speaking; personally, I think their ignorance should be on full display. 

However, not liking what they say because you consider it hate speech or just disagree isn’t a reason to keep them off-campus. The Supreme Court of the United States has, on a number of occasions, said there is no hate speech exception to the First Amendment. And frankly, who is to decide what is hate speech? Where’s the line? You don’t want me deciding, and I don’t want you deciding.

But here’s the irony of this: SJP is not interested in free speech unless it benefits them.

I had submitted a request for press credentials for the weekend because I believed an event that is that significant to the Jewish community in the Twin Cities should be covered by the Jewish community’s mainstream media outlet. I never heard back – for the credential itself or for a request for comment on the conference – and I imagine that not hearing back is usually a good sign that I wasn’t getting one.

One of the demands that I refused to accede to was one that prohibited me from recording anything on audio or video. I understand that the University of Minnesota feels the need to allow a registered student group to have a conference on its campus; I find it absurd that the group will allow media to be credentialed for the event but not accurately record what takes place. 

Disrupting the freedom of speech is something that SJP does regularly, including at the U when they delayed the start of a lecture from a well-known Israeli law professor four years ago. 

On Friday, Minnesota Hillel and U of M Chabad are coming together for a student Shabbat experience, coming together with Students Supporting Israel and all the Jewish Greek houses on campus. Hillel Executive Director Benjie Kaplan said this is the first time the Jewish and pro-Israel groups are working together on something on campus.

“When we heard that this conference was coming to the U and was closed-door, many wondered why we should be concerned,” said Kaplan. “When myself and (Chabad Rabbi) Yitzi (Steiner) both showed up at the meeting about how to respond, they knew it was important. Because [coming together] doesn’t happen often enough.”

You should not be denied the ability to be a campus group on freedom of speech grounds, but that means you shouldn’t be preventing others from speaking. Freedom of speech doesn’t apply only to those that support the aims of SJP; it applies to those who disagree. So as much as I may find the aims of SJP to be distasteful, they should come to the Twin Cities this weekend. If you want to oppose, come to Unity Shabbat, or support Hillel and U of M Chabad. 

But showing up to protest only gives the conference organizers the attention — and sympathy — they are looking for.