FRENCH: Anti-Semitism bill would chill legitimate criticism

By Kristen French, Special to Statehouse Report  |  S.C. Rep. Alan Clemmons (R-Horry) recently introduced a bill that intends to limit speech critical of Israel in S.C. institutions of higher education.  This bill, H. 3643, is patterned after S. 10, a bill sponsored by U.S. Sen. Tim Scott in the U.S. Senate during the 2015-16 session of Congress.

Both bills use definitions of anti-Semitism proposed by the U.S. State Department in 2010 to guide State Department employees.  The definition may be an appropriate recommendation for diplomats, but it is not appropriate for professors and students debating or discussing policies and history of Israel.  The attempt to investigate and punish criticism of Israel or any other government is quite chilling, and is arguably a violation of the protections of political speech in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

The Clemmons bill refers specifically to the State Department definition sections: “Contemporary Examples of anti-Semitism” and “What is anti-Semitism relative to Israel?”  This document is intended to guide State Department employees in proper diplomatic language, for instance: criticism of Israel or Israelis is anti-Semitic absent “similar [criticism] to that leveled against any other country. . ..”

One can appreciate the restraint placed on diplomats, but these definitions are too extreme for a broad application in society or at institutions of higher learning.  H.3643 would make it difficult, if not impossible, to debate the policies of Israel in a classroom setting.  It would also greatly limit free speech of students on campus who are protesting policies related to Israel.  Further, the bill offers no additional protections for the Jewish community against religious persecution.  So, one must question: What is the true intent of the bill?

Colleges and universities should and do promote critical thinking and dialogue about controversial subjects.  These are important tools for all citizens to navigate a complicated world where we must digest massive amounts of information on a daily basis.  Democracy is made stronger by critical thinking and debate, not by blind ideology.  In addition, free speech during peaceful protest is part of our society, including protests on college and university campuses.  Trying to restrict free speech on controversial subjects is a form of censorship that should not be tolerated.

H. 3643, was approved this week by a House Judiciary subcommittee and is on the House Judiciary Committee calendar. The number of sponsors for this bill concerns me. I believe that the list of sponsors is so long because the summary and reading of the bill did not include the specific definitions of anti-Semitism and refers instead to the State Department fact sheet — a vague and controversial document to begin with.  I find this tactic misleading and believe it is an attempt to garner support without raising the fear of violating free speech.

As citizens, we should contact our S.C. representatives to educate them about the ways this bill could violate the First Amendment on our college and university campuses across the state.   I call on you to join me in taking these actions to take to support free speech:

  • If your representative is a sponsor, ask him/her to withdraw that support.
  • Ask members of the House Judiciary Committee to vote against 3643to prevent a floor vote.

In summary, H. 3643 does not provide new protections for Jewish students or Jewish communities at institutions of higher learning.  Instead it seeks to intimidate critical discussion, debate and/or protest under threat of investigation and punishment, despite claims to the contrary.  Therefore, it constitutes a violation of free speech and political speech under the First Amendment, and the best course of action is to allow it to die in committee.

Editor’s Note:   H. 3643  has more than 100 co-sponsors. Currently, the House is comprised of 122 members. Click the link to see a list.

Kristen French, who holds a Ph.D. in pharmacology and toxicology, lives in North Charleston, S.C.

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