March 8, 2016; New York Times

The limits of free speech and academic freedom on campus are being tested by the social media postings of an Oberlin professor. Students, faculty, alumni, and the greater community at large have condemned her posts as anti-Semitic. These constituencies have pushed the college’s leadership to discipline her for her words, leaving the school’s leadership struggling to find a balance point that satisfies all interests.

At the center of the controversy is Dr. Joy Karega, a non-tenured assistant professor of rhetoric and composition whose teaching and research interests include Black political and protest literacies, translingual composition, rhetoric and composition historiography, social justice writing, and writing pedagogy.

One provocative post featured a picture of financier Jacob Rothschild and this text: “Hello there, my name is Jacob Rothschild. My family is worth 500 trillion dollars. We own nearly every central bank in the world. We financed both sides of every war since Napoleon. We own your news, the media, your oil and your government.”

Other posts name Israel as the force behind ISIL and having orchestrated the Charlie Hebdo massacre and the destruction of the World Trade Center.

There is little question that much of her speech is offensive and anti-Semitic. For many, tolerating such speech creates a climate of fear and pain. These writings inflamed an already heated atmosphere in which pro-Israel groups accused supporters of the BDS movement of creating a hostile environment. In January, 200 alumni wrote an open letter challenging the College’s leadership to defend the rights of its Jewish and pro-Israel students.

Dr. Karega used her Facebook page to dismiss the challenges she received, citing them as further evidence of the conspiracies she wrote about. She expressed no concern for the hurt she might be causing and pushed back forcefully.

Also worth investigating and exploring, I can generate articles for days on what I can describe as “anti-Semitism call-out culture” and some of its accompanying practices. I don’t have to tell some of you that these recent activities in my own professional life have handed me a LARGE body of data (voicemail messages, tweets, Facebook inbox messages, etc.) that will shed light on and provide insight into how and to what extent anti-Blackness rhetorics show up in anti-Semitic call-out culture and practices.

The difficulty in striking the right balance between these competing perspectives and rights is illustrated by the evolving position taken by the college’s leaders. Their first statement, issued in late February, said, “Oberlin College respects the rights of its faculty, students, staff, and alumni to express their personal views. Acknowledgement of this right does not signal institutional support for, or endorsement of, any specific position.”

When this did not end the controversy, the school’s president issued his own statement:

The screenshots affected me on a very personal level…As someone who has studied history, I cannot comprehend how any person could or would question [the holocaust’s] existence, its horrors, and the evil which caused it. I feel the same way about anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. Regardless of the reason for spreading these materials, they cause pain for many people—members of our community and beyond.

Still, while expressing his personal pain at her comments, the president affirmed his strong commitment to upholding the academic freedom of his faculty.

With the controversy still raging, Oberlin’s board of directors stepped in and insisted that disciplinary action against Dr. Karega be taken. Board Chair Clyde S. McGregor said, “These grave issues must be considered expeditiously. In consultation with President Marvin Krislov, the board has asked the administration and faculty to challenge the assertion that there is any justification for these repugnant postings and to report back to the board.”

So, as with the case of Dr. Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, academia is front and center in the debate over the limits of free speech. Dr. Karega may be promulgating crank theories that have no basis in fact. Her opinions hurt those she attacks and frighten many who feel her attacks personally. But is her speaking them on her personal website over the line? Does it deserve official censure?

This is a year in which we have seen public discourse sink lower and lower. Just tune into any of the Republican presidential debates and you will hear unfounded assertions directed at immigrants, the poor, and people of color; at the same time, promises are made to curb the speech rights of protestors and the press. As the leaders of Oberlin struggle to find the right balance for their campus, the nation is challenged to recalibrate where we want the line to be drawn. Must all public speech be backed by indisputable fact? If speech offends, should it be impermissible? The stakes are great, and we need to get it right.—Martin Levine