Proposed university ethics code: Protective or stifling?

MKs propose bills for and against initiative as Israeli public debate over role of university heats up.

Students sit in a library at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel (photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Students sit in a library at the Ariel University Center in the West Bank settlement of Ariel
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
While the fate of the proposed university ethics code is uncertain as it awaits the approval of the Council for Higher Education, politicians from both Left and Right are advancing legislation for and against the spirit of the document, which wishes to prevent professors from expressing their political views in class.
On Sunday, the Ministerial Committee for Legislation will discuss whether the government should support a bill that holds that university campuses should be “safe spaces” for political activity and opinions.
The bill, submitted by MK Dov Henin of the Joint List, would be an amendment to the Student Rights Law (2000), and aims to “make clear that the freedom of speech and the freedom of assembly will be possible in all academic institutions,” according to Henin.
He told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday that the legislation is in response to the ethics code that was proposed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett, and to other similar initiatives.
“We want to anchor in the law, in a very clear way, the right to hold political activities at universities,” he said. “The need to protect freedom of speech at universities is getting more and more acute, in light of events.”
Under the proposed code, drafted by Prof. Asa Kasher (who also drafted the IDF Code of Conduct), units would be established on campuses to enforce the ban, and students could complain to them about violations.
It would also bar professors from calling for boycotts of Israeli academic institutions.
Meanwhile, MK Oder Forer of Yisrael Beytenu submitted earlier last week a bill that intends to “prevent lecturers from making rebellious remarks.”
This comes after the recently released video by right-wing NGO Im Tirzu of Dr. Ofer Cassif from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem’s department of political science, in which he likened the legal situation in Israel to that of Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
Forer’s bill would authorize the education minister, as the head of the Council for Higher Education, to cut funding from a university if one of its lecturers committed such an offense.
The explanatory notes of the bill define “rebellious remarks”: “When is it proven without a doubt that he [the lecturer] expressed hatred, contempt or disloyalty to the state or to government authorities or to the law; [if the lecturer] incited or tried to persuade [students] to change the law in an unlawful manner; [if he] sparked hatred [in order to create division] among different groups of the [Israeli] population.”
The Committee of University Heads called Forer’s initiative an “outrageous act.”
“This bill has no room in a democratic country,” the school presidents said in a statement.
“The universities in Israel are among the most important bodies in the country; they strengthen it and help build its future. It is unfortunate that there are politicians who are willing to make the universities a punching bag just to get a headline in the newspaper.”
They repeated in the statement their call to stop these kinds of activities, which they see as harmful to the freedom of speech.
“As we warned before, we are on the verge of a slippery slope,” they said.