This seems to me to be a pretty blatant attack on academic freedom. George Bisharat, a professor at the UC Hastings School of Law, organized a conference entitled “Litigating Palestine: Can Courts Secure Palestinian Rights?” It’s pretty much what you’d expect: lots of speakers decrying Israel, advocating BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) against Israel, and detailing how to sue Israel in a variety of fora. Nothing to waste your time on, but pretty standard fare.
But then the San Francisco Jewish Community Relations Committee kicked up a fuss by protesting, not outside the conference, but the Hastings’ Board of Directors, who are appointed by California’s Governor. They demanded that the school remove its official sponsorship of the conference and that the board forbid the Dean from giving a welcoming speech. And that’s exactly what the Board did.
Look: a full-time member of the Hastings faculty, with nearly-unanimous approval of that faculty, decided to put on the conference. That’s the way these things are supposed to be done. Then a politically-appointed board tells the Dean that he can’t speak there, and removes the school’s name from it (the article doesn’t say anything about funding). That’s not the way these things are supposed to be done. A faculty needs to make the relevant intellectual decisions for a school. It’s not clear to me what sorts of rights the Dean has in terms of convening the conference, but this is really a bad sign. Politically-appointed boards are supposed to provide general direction, raise money, and make overall policy decisions. They aren’t supposed to be telling faculty what is good or not good to say (although of course individual boardmembers can express their opinions in their personal capacity). A number of UCLA Law School faculty are circulating a letter of support for the determinations of the Hastings faculty, and I was happy to sign it.
That said, Professor Bisharat hasn’t helped his cause much with statements like this. One of the Jewish Community Relations Committee’s complaints was that everyone at the conference was anti-Israel and that no one speaking offered the pro-Israeli perspective, which is essentially true. Bisharat’s response?
If you had a conference on Holocaust reparation cases, you wouldn’t include Holocaust deniers.