Deepening US divide over Israel tests the limits of free speech | KRDO (2024)

Analysis by Zachary B. Wolf, CNN

(CNN) — Pro-Palestinian protesters are resorting to ever-louder and intrusive tactics – like shutting down the Golden Gate Bridge during Monday’s morning commute and blocking access to Chicago’s O’Hare airport – as they try to shake US support for Israel and draw attention to the humanitarian disaster in Gaza.

The disruptions are raising questions about the limits of free speech and led a US senator to encourage people to “take matters in their own hands.”

An activist in Bakersfield, California, blew through limits on free speech when, during a public comment period on a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, she told city council members last week they would be murdered in their homes. She now faces felony charges.

Why was a valedictorian’s speech removed from USC’s ceremony?

Separately, on Monday, the University of Southern California canceled the commencement speech of its valedictorian – biomedical engineering major Asna Tabassum, who is Muslim – after her social media posts were targeted by pro-Israel activists, raising questions about the existence of free speech.

“Tradition must give way to safety,” USC Provost Andrew Guzman wrote in an online, campuswide letter announcing his decision to axe Tabassum’s speech. The rest of the ceremony on May 10, including the planned commencement address of the Hollywood director Jon Chu, famous for the blockbuster film “Crazy Rich Asians” and who is being awarded an honorary degree, will apparently proceed.

It is not clear what Tabassum planned to say in her speech, and she would not go into details during an interview on Tuesday with CNN’s Nick Watt. She disputed the cancellation had to with security and said USC’s decision to cancel the remarks “impedes on my freedom of expression.”

Tabassum’s resume, as described in the early April release announcing her selection as valedictorian, is objectively incredible and pointed to her volunteer work sending medical supplies to foreign countries and volunteering with the homeless on Skid Row in Los Angeles.

In a statement after the cancellation of her speech, she noted that her minor is in “resistance to genocide,” a horror she said can be driven by hate and fear. “And due to widespread fear,” Tabassum wrote, “I was hoping to use my commencement speech to inspire my classmates with a message of hope.”

In between the time when Tabassum’s valedictorian application was selected by Guzman and his cancellation of her speech, her social media activity was attacked by pro-Israel activists. In her Instagram profile, she links to a website that calls for the abolishment of the state of Israel.

The content of the commencement speech was not mentioned in Guzman’s letter announcing the cancellation, and he argued it was not about speech but about security.

“The intensity of feelings, fueled by both social media and the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, has grown to include many voices outside of USC and has escalated to the point of creating substantial risks relating to security and disruption at commencement,” Guzman wrote, noting 65,000 people are expected to attend the ceremony.

While Tabassum will not get the chance to speak at USC, and it remains to be seen if there will be any kind of protest to disrupt the commencement ceremony, there’s a growing frustration expressed by lawmakers and presumably by Bay Area commuters with protesters adopting an in-your-face strategy.

Senator wants people to ‘take matters in their own hands’ against protesters

A Republican senator, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, encouraged people whose lives are disrupted by pro-Palestinian protests to go rogue.

“I would encourage most people anywhere that get stuck behind criminals like this who are trying to block traffic to take matters in their own hands,” Cotton said on Fox News on Monday, intentionally referring to the protesters as “criminals.”

This worldview is to be expected from Cotton, who wrote a controversial op-ed for The New York Times in 2020 calling on the government to call in the military to put down the occasionally violent protests sparked by the death of George Floyd.

But the frustration extends across party lines. Sen. John Fetterman, the Pennsylvania Democrat, shared a video on X on Tuesday of a brief but loud protest at an Ann Arbor, Michigan, Starbucks, with the comment, “blocking a bridge or berating folks in Starbucks isn’t righteous, it just makes you an asshole.”

Grabbing the mic

Erwin Chemerinsky, the University of California, Berkeley’s law school dean, is a bona fide expert on the First Amendment who is also dealing with the real-world example of his wife – fellow Berkeley law professor Catherine Fisk – essentially taking Cotton’s advice to take matters literally into her own hands.

A celebration Chemerinsky and Fisk hosted for third-year law students at their Oakland, California, home was interrupted when one of the celebrants, Malak Afaneh, who is co-president of Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, pulled her own microphone and amplifier out of a backpack and began loudly calling on the University of California system to divest from Israel.

When Fisk tried to grab the microphone from Afaneh, the mixer turned into a social media moment.

The added context is that before the mixer, posters had been hung around campus depicting Chemerinsky with a bloody knife and fork and referring to him as a Zionist.

Chemerinsky explained his view of free speech to CNN’s Jake Tapper on “The Lead” last week:

CHEMERINSKY: I found the image of me with a bloody knife and fork deeply offensive; it does raise the antisemitic trope of blood libel. But I also took the position that they had the right to put it out in bulletin boards around the school. Many students and staff, Jewish and non-Jewish, said that it made them feel unsafe. But I said under the First Amendment, they have the right to put those things on bulletin boards.

But when something is happening at my house, that’s quite different. We invited the graduating students over at the request of the class president to celebrate their graduation. When a student took out of her backpack a microphone and an amplifier and began talking about what’s going on in the Middle East, that’s not OK in my home. No one was speaking that night. It wasn’t in any way an occasion for anything but socializing and celebration.

More reports of bias

Meanwhile, there are more and more reports of both anti-Muslim and antisemitic bias. Here are key lines from two separate CNN reports this month:

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said “it received 8,061 complaints ofanti-Muslim biasincidents last year – the highest number in the 28 years CAIR has tracked hate.” Read more about the group’s annual civil rights report.

The Anti-Defamation League “tracked 8,873 antisemitic incidents in the United States in 2023 – the highest number of incidents reported since the organization began trackingdata in 1979, according to the organization’s annual audit of antisemitism.” Read more about the ADL’s report.

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Deepening US divide over Israel tests the limits of free speech | KRDO (2024)
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