In Response to "The Myth of 'Polite Discourse'"

Illustration by Alessandra Felloni

Judith S. Jacobson | Professor at Mailman School of Public Health | February 23, 2017

Jay Saltzman | Columbia College Class of 1983

In the op-ed “The Myth of ‘Polite Discourse’,” Naay Idriss accurately describes the disruption of Ambassador Danny Danon’s speech at Lerner Hall on February 13.  She confirms that “demonstrators from a wide range of student organizations” violated  Columbia’s stated policies, clearly spelled out in the Affirmative Statement. According to that document, “The right to demonstrate . . . cannot come at the expense of the right of others to counter-demonstrate, to teach, or to engage in academic pursuits requiring uninterrupted attention.”

However, Idriss absurdly denies that “the protest somehow breached Danon’s ‘freedom of speech.’”  After observing, correctly, that “Protest . . . is a crucial and necessary act that directly arises from the right to free speech,” she makes the Orwellian argument that “Danon was shouted down, not silenced,” a distinction without a difference.  If her point is that Danon managed to continue speaking, that is true, but mainly because, thanks to Columbia security, the disruptors failed to “shout him down” entirely.  

Idriss further uses unsubstantiated accusations of “racism” and “bigoted opinions” to justify the disruption. After demanding that the speaker “recognize that others can have the floor, too,” she bizarrely proclaims, “We [who, exactly?] will not ‘dialogue’ with someone who does not accept our right to exist.”

She asserts that “In practice, ‘polite dialogue’ gets used to keep others from having the floor at all.” That statement is generally false, at least on American campuses, and it is specifically false with reference to Danon.  Far from not “recogniz[ing] that others can have the floor, too,” Danon implored the disruptors to stay for the Q&A and calmly answered questions from those with opposing viewpoints. In response to a question, Danon stated: “We [Israelis and Palestinians] need to negotiate. Yes, I have my goal, and when I go into a negotiation room . . . I come with what I think is best for the Jewish people . . . The other side will come with their goals. That’s legitimate. . . . But both sides need to come to the room to negotiate.”

Idriss also tries to justify disruption based on inequality between Columbia and its students.  She says, “Columbia as an institution may invite Danon, but doing so lends him institutional credibility.”  In fact, students invited Danon to speak; the event was sponsored mainly by student organizations.   The university in principle recognizes its obligation to protect the rights of students to invite speakers to campus, even if the speakers’ views are not universally popular.

February 13 was not the first time that demonstrators have disrupted an Israel-related event on the Columbia campus.   Demonstrators from many of the same organizations have engaged in similar tactics on other campuses as well.  If the university fails to discipline the disruptors and their organizational sponsors Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace appropriately, they will continue to test Columbia’s tolerance of bad behavior and rule violation, and they will ultimately deprive the university community of all opportunities to hear opposing views.  The end of polite discourse will be the end of free speech.

Both Dr. Jacobson and Mr. Saltzman are members of Alums for Campus Fairness, which is a nationwide organization of alumni, parents and faculty whose mission is to fight the anti-Semitism that is infecting university and college campuses, and promote open and fair dialogue on campus regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the opinions of The Morningside Post.