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Anti-Semitism and free speech on college campuses

Education | President Donald Trump moves to protect Jews from discrimination at universities
by Laura Edghill
Posted 12/18/19, 05:35 pm

President Donald Trump signed an executive order last week targeting anti-Semitism on college campuses, drawing praise from some and fear from others that it may lead to a silencing of free speech.

“This is our message to universities: If you want to accept the tremendous amount of federal dollars that you get every year, you must reject anti-Semitism,” the president said. “It’s very simple.”

College campuses are dealing with a recent wave of anti-Semitic incidents, including verbal assaults and graffiti at Syracuse University last month that led to several student suspensions, the temporary shutdown of a fraternity, and at least one arrest.

Trump ordered the U.S. Department of Education to interpret Title VI of the Civil Rights Act—which bars discrimination at colleges and universities based on race, color, and national origin but not religion—to include anti-Semitic discrimination. The executive action directs the department to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition of anti-Semitism when evaluating complaints under Title VI. That definition includes acts that target a Jew’s national identity and could also cover comments or actions directed against Israel as a nation.

Debates about the anti-Israel boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement have roiled college campuses in recent years. Last year, 60 Jewish or pro-Israel groups asked the University of Michigan to fire a professor who refused to write a letter of recommendation for a student who wanted to study in Israel. The university disciplined him. A controversy like that could put a college’s federal funding at risk under Trump’s new executive order.

Some major Jewish American groups, including the Anti-Defamation League, praised the action. The chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, former U.S. Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, called it “a truly historic and important moment for Jewish Americans.”

Critics complained that it could have an adverse effect on campus free speech since it forces college administrators to make subjective determinations on whether speech is protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution or if it has crossed a line and becomes harassment.

“One of the pitfalls is that it will open the floodgates for all other groups to try and ask to have biases against them specifically defined by the government,” said Joe Cohn, legislative and policy director for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. He said the order seems to contradict an earlier executive order by Trump that encouraged wider protection for free speech on college campuses.

The Jewish Democratic Council of America called the move a “political stunt” rather than a meaningful action to address rising anti-Semitism, and the American Civil Liberties Union warned it would pursue legal action if the order undermines free speech in practice.

The Constitution protects even vile speech, Cohn said, arguing that centuries of legal precedent illustrate that the government has no business favoring some speech over others, no matter how objectionable: “The last thing you want to have is the government deciding to silence critics on your behalf.”

Associated Press/Photo by Kassi Jackson/Hartford Courant Associated Press/Photo by Kassi Jackson/Hartford Courant The Newtown Nighthawks celebrate their state championship on Saturday.

Better days

Under bright lights and a light fog, the Newtown Nighthawks on Saturday won the Connecticut Class LL high school football championship seven years to the day after a tragic school shooting changed their town forever.

Quarterback Jack Street and several other members of the team were students at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza shot and killed 26 people, including 20 children. Some, like linebacker Ben Pinto, lost siblings in the tragedy.

“It’s always so difficult to explain what it feels like to hold grief in your heart while celebrating these precious moments,” Ben’s mother, Tricia Pinto, said about the win. “Our grief sometimes gets lost in this story of survival. That’s not our story. Our story is of loss and of love.”

Athletic and town officials initially considered rescheduling Saturday’s game in Trumbull, Conn., so it would not coincide with the painful anniversary. After consulting with the high school principal, athletic director, team members, and families who lost loved ones, officials decided to play the game as scheduled.

“They wanted to play,” Newtown Superintendent of Schools Lorrie Rodrigue said.

Town officials plan to host a celebration commemorating Saturday’s 13-7 win over the Darien Blue Wave, decided by a 36-yard touchdown pass as time expired. But they noted that while victory marked this year’s anniversary, it does not erase the heartbreak of seven years ago. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin (file) Associated Press/Photo by Ross D. Franklin (file) Betsy DeVos

Unpaid bills

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos faced off against the House Education Committee on Thursday over the department’s attempts to overhaul the process of loan forgiveness for students cheated by their colleges.

The government’s 2016 borrower defense rule offers to forgive the loans of defrauded students. The Obama administration enacted the federal program to mitigate the effects of a sweeping wave of for-profit college closures that left tens of thousands of students with piles of debt and no degrees to show for it.

Democrats on the committee complained that a backlog of applications has developed since DeVos took office. They accused the secretary of deliberately delaying debt relief to borrowers. DeVos countered that she inherited thousands of pending claims with no clear guidance for handling them.

To clear the backlog and provide direction going forward, the department issued new rules last week linking the amount of loan forgiveness to the applicant’s level of indebtedness. DeVos stressed the need for accountability because many of the applications contain claims so dubious that “your jaw would drop if you actually read” the reasoning. —L.E.

Associated Press/Photo by Brian Witte Associated Press/Photo by Brian Witte Students at the historically black University of Maryland Eastern Shore in Annapolis, Md.

Minority college funding

Last week, the U.S. House and Senate approved the restoration of more than $250 million for the nation’s historically black colleges and universities, as well as other institutions that teach a high percentage of minority students.

The funding was meant to expand STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs at the schools but lapsed at the end of September after the Senate failed to renew it. With the finances uncertain, schools began to cut programs and prepare for the possibility of a permanent funding loss.

“We are elated and we are relieved that this funding is not only being restored for the institutions but it is being made permanent,” the United Negro College Fund’s Lodriguez Murray said.

Lawmakers achieved the compromise by tying the funding to reforms on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, simplifying the application process that nearly 20 million students go through every year. —L.E.

It’s still Bible time

A Tennessee county school board voted last week to maintain its Bible Release Time program, affirming state law that allows parents to pull their children from school for religious studies. The Knox County Board of Education hosted a public forum earlier this month in which parents and community members debated whether the program violated the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as the effects of lost instructional time.

The board voted 5-4 to retain the program. Board member Kristi Kristy said that the county’s policy can’t change state law, and that in order to support parents’ rights, the board should “leave things how they are.” —L.E.

Laura Edghill

Laura Edghill is a freelance writer, church communications director, and public school board member living in Clinton Township, Mich., with her engineer husband and three sons. She is a graduate of the WORLD Journalism Institute's mid-career course. Follow Laura on Twitter @LTEdghill.

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