Academic freedom in the West is usually a given -- or was.
Recently, however, American universities have been allowing students to shout down speakers, "disinvite" others, and punish -- or threaten to punish -- students simply for respectfully expressing their views. These curtailments of academic freedom and free speech place apparently take place without any consequences for those who curtail, agitate or disrupt. Ironically, often the very people who shut down free speech are treated as free speech heroes.
The latest display of (repeated) extremely questionable, if not illegal, judgment by a college administration involved an academic assault by the Dean of Students at Brandeis University, Jamele Adams, on an honor-roll senior, Daniel Mael. "They try," Mael said, "to intimidate students into being silent, in the interest of people's feelings not being hurt, rather than encourage debate."
These problems, unfortunately, seem to be widespread. Academic freedom, although sometimes abused, was originally provided, including tenure, to give scholars the right to communicate ideas freely, without retaliation, even if these ideas are sometimes viewed as "inconvenient."
Recently, however, there has been a change. Academic freedom in the West has been shrinking to a point where in places it barely exists. Students, chosen so carefully, supposedly come to learn, but lately seem to have been trying to take over the house -- too often, sadly, with the complicity of the administrations.
Speakers are not only "disinvited," they are shouted into silence or swooshed off the stage. Who is allowing this behavior?
At a University of Massachusetts Amherst rally even a few years ago, you could see the hatred and rage in the eyes of the cowardly, masked demonstrators calling for the destruction of Israel. Many were obviously not students at all, and many not young and impressionable. They seemed to have been brought in just to yell slogans and frighten everyone.
Many, however, who did appear to be students, based on what was said had no knowledge of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, but seemed to have come just to demonstrate against Israel. Many even seemed good, overachieving children from liberal, upper middle class homes, who had just tagged along, but had no idea what to do in the face of genuine threats of violence. They seemed mostly worried about their grades.
This time, however, on a recent book tour through North America, there were guards in the hall, "to keep order," they said.
"Why would you need to 'keep order?'" I said. "Is this some East Asian dictatorship?"
They said that at times opposition groups started violent demonstrations, either to make sure that events did not take place; or, if they did, to silence the speaker and frighten everyone in the university so that no one holding those views would ever speak there again.
It was censorship, it was authoritarian, and it was not what you would expect in the West from a place of higher learning, or any learning.
On October 29, 2013, a lecture at Brown University by New York City Police Department Commissioner Raymond Kelly (center, behind the podium at the front of the room) was abruptly cut-off and cancelled after unruly protesters repeatedly interrupted Kelly's speech and would not stop. (Image source: Brown Daily Herald YouTube screenshot)
That view was seen again -- this time with threats of violence -- when a well-known Muslim professor, from a respected American university, said he would like to publish an article together about young Muslims involved in terrorism, but that he was afraid to use the word "terrorism" because he and his family could be harmed or ostracized, and his daughter might never find a husband.
So despite agreeing on the theme, we eventually had to agree that there was no way we could report any of the findings without placing him in danger. To avoid publishing lies, we chose to abandon the project. He feared for his life. In America.
Another odd welcome took place at the University of Florida in Gainesville, at a talk on the participation of women and children in terrorism.
The audience was assured that, as a criminologist, I would not be discussing any political issues, but instead would talk about the psychological effects of gender discrimination and how they related to increasing radical Islamic terrorism.
There were two short films first, one from Pakistan and the other from Iraq, on how young girls were tempted into marriage and "sacrifice" (shahada); and on the massive use of women and children in the terrorism industry.
But a few minutes into the talk, a group of students (judging from how they looked, not all of them may have been students) walked towards the stage and sat in the front row.
The woman wore traditional Islamic dress, with her face fully covered; the men wore jeans and torn leather jackets. After a short while, they stood up, turned around, and unbuttoned their outer clothing to reveal pro-jihad and anti-Israel signs, which they held up; they then began shouting, waving their signs and jeering at the students, who by then seemed terrified into silence.
The group had probably come to disrupt a "demonic" Israeli, and because speaking about terrorism upset them.
They would be better off, I said, demonstrating in Syria, where terrorists were gassing and slaughtering women and children.
That was not, apparently, what they had expected. They looked at each other, then hurried out of the hall.
When the audience settled down, a student asked if I had been scared. I explained that after more than twenty years of going to prisons in Israel to interview serial terrorist murderers, I had worse things to contend with than people interrupting my talks.
They explained that such tactics were often used there, and that most of the time the lecture was cut short and people went home.
So, under the cloak of free speech, gangs of thugs in North America have apparently been silencing free speech in many universities. Where previously pluralism and freedom of thought were all-important, they were spreading hate propaganda.
It was unsettling that it took someone from a foreign country to preserve their right to know, but what was really frightening was seeing the erosion of academic freedom in such a great democracy. Do speakers now need security details? Will the academic calendar be arranged to suit the fancy of whoever is trying to silence opinions that they might disagree with? Is education now about instilling fear?
Will self-declared jihadis and other "speech police" decide what is, and what is not, discussed and taught in Western universities? Where are the university authorities? Why do they not simply expel whoever is intolerant of academic values? No one is forcing these students to be there. They may be enjoying their free speech, but they are not allowing others to enjoy their free speech. The first amendment right should not extend to depriving others of their first amendment right.
Why are these students behaving this way? Because they can. People are letting them. There is no accountability and no cost -- either to them or to the people failing to educate them. Bad behavior is rewarded; it is allowed to go on.
Do the universities not have the means to protect their students and, more importantly, their institutions? Why are these hapless administrators not dismissed?
At another well-known university near Washington, D.C., a student said that one of her professors had told her Hamas was not a terrorist organization. One had to wonder if this professor actually knew anything about Hamas -- not just its activities and its agenda to destroy Israel -- but to kill all the Jews -- and how it was striving night and day to achieve those ends. What criteria had the professor -- and for that matter, much of Europe -- used to determine that Hamas was not a terrorist organization, as opposed to the criteria used by the government of the United States to determine that, in fact, it was?
There is, however, room for hope. There were also many Muslim students who had fled the catastrophes brought about by Islamist radicalism. After one talk, a student named Muhammad said his family had run from Somalia in fear of al-Shabaab. Jihadist ideas, he said, had penetrated the madrasas [religious Islamic schools] of Somalia, which had historically followed Sufi Islam (a spiritual, more peaceful version). He regretted, he said, that the greatest victims of radical Islamist terrorism were the Muslims themselves.
A Syrian student, smiling, said that all humanity had the same enemy.
After another talk in South Florida, in an auditorium packed with both faculty and students, an aging professor from Tunisia spoke up. "At school in Tunis, we had both Jewish and Christian teachers who enriched my intellectual curiosity. But look at what happened to us," he said. "We got lost."
An Afghan student told us how his family fled from the Taliban; he said that the wave of extreme Islamic murder had to be stopped.
Local students came over. Universal humanism and common sense were being challenged by ignorance and coercion, they said, and advanced by threats of violence.
One should not have to say that universities should be protected sanctuaries, and not lawless theaters for terrorism-lite.
Administrators faced with authoritarian pressures urgently need to ask what they can do to preserve free speech and free thought.
There is a real danger that idealistic but naïve students -- usually oscillating between too much confidence and not enough -- are being pounded from all sides: by peer-pressure; by the wish to be popular; by censorship from without and within; by "political correctness" and by radical Islam. These students are coerced into joining any groupthink at the door without ever seeing how manipulated they are.
Dr. Anat Berko conducts research for the National Security Council and is a research fellow at the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism at the Interdisciplinary Center in Israel. A criminologist, she is author of two books: The Path to Paradise, and The Smarter Bomb: Women and Children as Suicide Bombers.
 This is the same Brandeis University that last April disinvited Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a refugee from Somalia who became a member of a the Dutch Parliament, from receiving an honorary doctorate in April 2014. See also: "Brandeis University: School for Scandal"; "Activist Exposes Brandeis University Anti-Israel Faculty Listserv" (uncovered by Daniel Mael).