Campus Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and the Problem of the BDS Movement

Source: goacta

Polarizing political beliefs are nothing new on campus, but the tactics employed by supporters of the BDS movement create new cause for concern, from the politicization of curriculua and academic associations to efforts to silence Israeli speakers to overtly anti-Semitic behavior on campus. In a new essay, ACTA renews its call for the protection of campus free speech and free expression by warning trustees and higher education leaders about the threat to academic freedom from the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. The report outlines ways to safeguard academic freedom and institutional neutrality and create a campus climate where a wide range of social and political thought is represented in important debates.  


SUMMARY: At the heart of America’s long record of achievement in higher education is a deep commitment to academic freedom. Academic freedom, while sometimes uncomfortable and in tension with other important campus values, must be the paramount principle of higher education. Academic freedom, which depends on free speech and free expression, stimulates discourse, inquiry, and debate on campus and in the classroom. It ensures that students and educators alike are free to pose questions, and it protects the right of faculty to conduct research on controversial topics.


One of the greatest threats to academic freedom in the United States today is the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, an international political effort designed to undermine economic and cultural exchange with the state of Israel. BDS supporters have shouted down pro-Israel speakers on campus and challenged the legitimacy of Israeli scholars of law and public policy to present their views. Several higher education professional organizations have taken up a political agenda outside their academic missions and voted in favor of boycott and sanction of Israel. There have been instances of overt politicization of academic programs to support an anti-Israel agenda and, most troubling of all, examples of BDS activists even engaging in anti-Semitic behaviors on campus. Anti-Israel groups have attempted to pressure boards of trustees into taking a side in the Israel-Palestine dispute and shutting down relations with Israeli institutions, in violation of their institutional neutrality and responsibility to maintain academic freedom.


There are a few indications that the tide may be turning. Members of the American Historical Association and the Modern Language Association properly rejected recent attempts to pass sweeping boycott resolutions that would politicize these important disciplinary associations. A growing number of scholars, college presidents, and policymakers now voice their serious concerns about the BDS movement’s violation of academic freedom and open dialogue, and state legislatures have taken steps to discourage contractors that receive state funding from joining the boycott. While remaining firmly neutral on such questions as the two-state solution or the settlements, this essay investigates the threat to academic freedom, civic discourse, and free speech posed by the BDS movement and other related initiatives that seek to squelch free expression.