Free speech isn't always free on university campuses - opinion

Over the last few weeks, a Palestinian student at the University of Southern California has come under scrutiny for her antisemitic and violent tweets.

 PRO-PALESTINE demonstrators protest outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles in May. (photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)
PRO-PALESTINE demonstrators protest outside the Israeli Consulate in Los Angeles in May.
(photo credit: LUCY NICHOLSON / REUTERS)

Free speech is a powerful tool, one of the most important basic freedoms that exists. But one look at social media and you’ll see the worst of it.

Social media is far too often a cesspool of inflammatory, violent and racist hate speech. Today, in the era of cancel culture, more people than ever are being held accountable – for better or for worse – for their online commentary. But when does hateful rhetoric stop being protected speech? And what steps should be taken in real life when those lines between free speech and inciting violence are crossed on social media?

Over the course of the last few weeks, a Palestinian student at the University of Southern California, Yasmeen Mashayekh, has come under intense scrutiny for her antisemitic and violent tweets, which include sentiments such as “Curse the Jews” (in Arabic), “Death to Israel and its b**ch the US,” and repeatedly expressing her “love” for US-designated terrorist organization Hamas and its members, even instructing others on how to assist the terror group online in the fight against Israel. She also celebrated violent attacks on Jews by Arabs, joking about how Jews were set on fire, and in May, Mashayekh tweeted, “I want to kill every mother****ing Zionist.”

When multiple groups drew attention to Mashayekh’s violent tweets, she doubled down, replying to the criticism with “Oh no how horrifying that I want to kill my colonizer.” She also attempted to argue that the phrase she used in Arabic meaning “curse the Jews” was simply a “Zionist” mistranslation, and in fact, she just meant “occupiers” – an explanation that left Arabic speakers of all backgrounds laughing.

Ironically, Mashayekh was a student senator for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion at the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, was allegedly employed by the university, and held multiple positions of leadership. Naturally, USC is now facing tremendous pressure to act, including from dozens of faculty who signed an open letter condemning Mashayekh’s comments. But instead of taking action, they issued a statement claiming they won’t share what they are doing because of “privacy concerns,” and that while they don’t support her comments, her statements are “protected speech.” 

PROTESTING OUTSIDE a meeting of the British Labour Party’s National Executive, which was set to discuss the party’s definition of antisemitism, in London in September 2018 (credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)PROTESTING OUTSIDE a meeting of the British Labour Party’s National Executive, which was set to discuss the party’s definition of antisemitism, in London in September 2018 (credit: HENRY NICHOLLS/REUTERS)

This response sends a message that there is zero accountability on campus for calling to murder a minority group of people, a group that has already experienced violence against them in Los Angeles, at the exact time when Mashayekh was tweeting these sentiments in May. 

In response to USC’s statement, President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law Alyza Lewin explained that “if any other community were targeted... the university would have condemned the hate-filled rhetoric for targeting that community/identity group and would have expressed support for that community [by name]....They should start by publicly recognizing the community that is targeted by this hate.”

But to cut to the core of the issue for USC, are Mashayekh’s comments actually “protected speech?” For a number of reasons, the answer is no.

First, according to social media hate speech standards, Mashayekh’s comments are absolutely a violation of Twitter’s hate speech policies. Second, at USC, codes of conduct for university students prohibit expressing an intent to “kill” a minority group. For example, Mashayekh’s comments clearly violate the policy on prohibited discrimination, harassment and retaliation, which states, “the University prohibits discrimination on the basis of actual or perceived race, color, ethnicity, religion (including religious dress and grooming practices), creed... political belief or affiliation... and any other class of individuals protected from discrimination under federal, state, or local law, regulation, or ordinance (Protected Characteristics).”

Even under the US Constitution, Mashayekh’s comments are not protected speech. Harvard Law Prof. Alan Dershowitz stated unequivocally that the comment about killing Zionists “is not protected speech for a university student,” and argued that should USC do nothing, they could be subject to losing federal funding.

On the issue of whether Mashayekh’s comments were worthy of expulsion, Dershowitz stated, “[USC] is obligated to take action... president [Donald] Trump, two years ago, issued an executive order which has not been rescinded that requires universities to treat anti-Zionism and antisemitism the same way they treat anti-black, anti-feminist, anti-gay... so this would clearly fall within that.”

Dershowitz elaborated, “there has to be one standard that applies to everybody, and the question is what would happen... if a white supremacist said I want to kill all blacks?... If it would be disciplinable for some other person in another group to say he wants to kill all of ‘fill in the blank,’ then this has to be subject to discipline as well.”

As a USC alumna myself, I can attest to the fact there is a large and vocal Jewish, and yes, Zionist, community on campus, meaning that this student is in close proximity to many of the group of people that she explicitly expressed, repeatedly, that she wanted to kill. Not only that, she has expressed pro-violence views and supported a US-designated terrorist organization. If you were a Jewish student at USC, would you feel safe? 

The writer is the CEO of Social Lite Creative.