Palestinian discourse cited as example of free-speech erosion


Discourse about Palestine on college campuses and elsewhere is being increasingly censored in a way that harkens back to McCarthyism in the 1950s, the head of a Palestinian rights organization said during U-M’s Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom.

Dima Khalidi, the founder of Palestine Legal, said the “Palestine exemption” to free speech is a sign of the broader erosion of free speech and other constitutional rights. She encouraged attendees at the March 14 lecture to protect and uplift the voices of the marginalized, and not to take their freedoms for granted.  

“It is clear that there is a widespread, right-wing assault on not just our academic freedom, our First Amendment rights, our constitutional rights, our voting rights, our abortion rights, you name it. And it’s up to us to defend them and push for the kind of world we want,” Khalidi said, speaking during the lecture in Palmer Commons’ Forum Hall and broadcast over Zoom.

The annual lecture presented by U-M’s Faculty Senate is named for three faculty members who were punished in the 1950s for refusing to testify before a congressional committee about their political beliefs. Khalidi’s talk was titled, “A New McCarthyism? Academic Freedom and Palestine.”

Dima Khalidi, founder of Palestine Legal, delivers the 2022 Davis, Markert, and Nickerson Lecture on Academic and Intellectual Freedom titled, “A New McCarthyism? Academic Freedom and Palestine.” (Photo by Austin Thomason, Michigan Photography)

Since she founded Palestine Legal 10 years ago, Khalidi said there has been an increase in the level of censorship and number of laws and lawsuits against people who speak in favor of Palestinian rights.

She cited several examples, including the case of a Palestinian-American professor named Steven Salaita who was preparing to take a tenured position at the University of Illinois when he tweeted on social media about the brutality of an Israeli offensive against Palestinians in the Gaza Strip. The university’s Board of Trustees refused to approve his appointment.

Khalidi also mentioned John Cheney-Lippold, a U-M associate professor of American culture and in the Digital Studies Institute, who faced discipline after refusing to recommend a student for study in Israel because of his support for Palestine.

Khalidi said there is a “narrative battle,” with Israel defending its “foundational mythology” and “justifying its creation on destroyed Palestinian villages.”

In an effort to win that battle, Khalidi said, some people try to erase Palestinian histories, experiences of dispassion and oppression, and even Palestinian humanity itself, “along with the more and more voices who support and uplift Palestine.”

Watch a video of the full lecture.

Khalidi said there has been a well-coordinated and well-funded effort over the last couple of decades to shut down a growing grassroots movement in the United States for Palestinian rights.

She drew parallels to other recent events, including the passage of several laws and school board resolutions in some states around what can and can’t be taught in schools, including critical race theory.

“Whether state legislation or school board resolutions, these measures ban schools from teaching about race, sex and U.S. history in ways that make white people feel uncomfortable by suggesting that they benefit from the privilege of centuries of racist laws, that they are part of a system that privileges them over black and brown people. That is against the law in some states now,” she said.

Khalidi also said the response to Black Lives Matter and other social justice movements show it’s clear that protest rights and other rights are also under attack.

“It’s all of our jobs to make sure that the voices of the most marginalized are protected and uplifted, to courageously face the censorship machines, to refuse to accept the chill,” she said. “And we have to connect all the dots and speak collectively against these threats. Once the government can ban one kind of boycott, they can ban them all.”

Khalidi, a lawyer and U-M alumna, thanked those who organized the lecture and designed the poster for it. She also thanked U-M’s social media team for “providing me the perfect fodder for this talk,” a reference to a dispute and allegations of censorship over how the poster was, for a while, presented on the university’s social media channels.

Chandler Davis, one of the former U-M faculty members for whom the lecture is named, offered remarks via Zoom. He said the systematic attacks directed at people who defend the rights of Palestinians are concerning.

“It’s very appropriate that this (lecture) series should take this up,” he said.

The lecture is named after Davis and two other U-M faculty members: Clement Markert and Mark Nickerson. When called in 1954 to testify before a panel of the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, they invoked their constitutional rights and refused to answer questions about their political associations.

The three men were suspended from U-M. Davis and Nickerson were fired. Markert was retained but censured, and left the university soon afterward.


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