UC intolerance declaration raises concerns

The University of California's first draft of system-wide principles defining intolerance is drawing protests from free speech advocates who call it censorship and Jewish organizations that say it doesn't go far enough to protect against anti-Semitism.

The UC Board of Regents is scheduled to debate the proposed "Statement of Principles Against Intolerance" at its meeting Thursday at UC Irvine.

UC is the first statewide university to consider adopting such a declaration. It calls for its 10 campuses to be "free from acts and expressions of intolerance" and would prohibit "depicting or articulating a view of ethnic or racial groups as less ambitious, less hardworking or talented, or more threatening than other groups," among other things.

Critics say it would set a dangerous precedent. Many universities under pressure to do more to combat racism, sexual harassment and other forms of discrimination are already overstepping their bounds and discouraging comments that could be perceived as offensive, according to free speech advocates.

"However well-intentioned the `Principles Against Intolerance' is - it would chill speech protected by the 1st Amendment," said Will Creeley, of the nonprofit Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE. "What you'll have is a kind of race to the bottom, sooner or later, by public universities punishing students or faculty for a particular viewpoint."

UC officials say the statement would be just that - a declaration of the school's beliefs - and disciplinary measures would still be guided by existing policies and federal laws. "This statement of principles applies to attacks on individuals or groups and does not apply to the free exchange of ideas in keeping with the principles of academic freedom and free speech," the proposed draft states.

Critics disagree.

"Because it is so broad, the statement also could define as `intolerant' any discussion in an email or in the student paper of whether disabled people are incapable of certain activities, or whether gay people make worse parents than straight people," the Los Angeles Times wrote in an editorial published Wednesday.

The statement was crafted in response to Jewish groups pushing the UC to adopt the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism, saying campus debates over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were disintegrating into the harassment of Jewish students. UC President Janet Napolitano in a radio interview in May expressed support for adopting the State Department's definition of anti-Semitism, which includes demonizing Israel or denying the Jewish state's right to exist.

But that drew fire from free speech advocates and groups critical of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They applauded Napolitano's office for sending the regents a statement that makes no explicit mention of anti-Semitism.

Jewish organizations say the watered-down version serves no one.

"We're hopeful regents come up with a much more adequate statement to address the issue for which the statement was drafted in the first place - which is the alarming incidents of anti-Semitism on UC campuses," said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the AMCHA Initiative, which fights to end anti-Semitism on campuses.

UC officials declined to comment, saying it is for the Board of Regents to debate at their meeting Thursday.

Jewish organizations say a rash of anti-Semitism incidents last year- including many that made references to Israel - underscore the need for the UC system to take a strong stance against anti-Semitism on its 10 campuses. They included Nazi swastikas splashed on a Jewish fraternity house at UC Davis and a student's credentials being questioned by student government leaders at UCLA for a position on a campus panel because she is Jewish. The student leaders later apologized.

Liz Jackson, an attorney at Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, said the proposed statement is strong enough.

"But I understand the concerns of free speech advocates," she said. "I do think it's dangerous when universities draw the line between what is OK to say and what isn't."

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