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Rutgers president addresses controversial bias incidents, says they're protected by ​First ​Amendment

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November 16 town hall with Rutgers President Robert Barchi. Credits: Daniel J. Munoz
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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ - Rutgers President Robert Barchi stood by his affirmation ​of​ the First Amendment, saying those ​protections ​extend to ​the recent rash of ​anti-Semitism on campus.

At the November 16 student government town hall, Barchi​ noted the protections to incidents such as the anti-Semitic posts allegedly shared on the Facebook of a food science professor, the swastika graffiti on a Rutgers dorm, and an international law professor who accused Israel of trafficking human organs.

“If I’m a Ku Klux Klan member, and I’m going to burn a cross on a vacant lot, that’s a constitutionally protected right,” Barchi said, ​al​though the act of burning something would likely be prohibited by local ordinances.

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“You put that cross on my front yard, and you light it, that is not constitutionally protected, that’s harassment,” Barchi added. “It’s an exception to the First Amendment.​"​

The same goes for swastikas on campus, Barchi said.

“It is free speech, it’s not hate speech,” Barchi said, prompting a loud and ​visceral response from student activists who attended the meeting and insisted that it was in fact hate speech.

“If it’s a general building on the university, that’s First Amendment rights,” Barch said.

But ​such action would still violate the university’s vandalism policy, Barchi said, as well as the policy for posting materials on university buildings, both of which would justify ​obvious removal.

“If you put it on the door of a dormitory, that’s not protected, if you put it on the door of a synagogue, that’s not protected, or if you put in on my house, that’s not protected,” Barchi said.

The president also spoke in support of three professors who​ have​ come under fire for ​their comments, arguing that what they’ve said is protected by academic freedom and the First Amendment.

Those rights would extend to Michael Chikandas, a microbiology professor in the food science department, who allegedly shared dozens of anti-Semitic posts on his Facebook.

Thousand of students have since signed a petition calling for his removal from the university, which as of 12:32 p.m. on November 17 had garnered 5,333 signatures. 

“But the question is, does having posted that created an environment in his work that would compromise his ability to teach or to do research?​” Barchi ​asked. “That’s an employment issue, so we are actually investigating him.”

Barchi also defended Jasbir Puar, an associate professor at the Women and Gender Studies department, over her recently published book, The Right to Main: Debility, Capacity and Disability.

The book, published in the Duke University Press, alleges that the Israeli Defense Force, in an attempt to keep Palestinians under control, shoots to physically maim these citizens​

“That is in her area of expertise as defined by the faculty, and as you know she is a tenured faculty,” Barchi said. “That book and the material in it were reviewed independently by scholars around the country. It was accepted for publication by the Duke University Press, which is a very prominent scholarly press.”

Lastly, Barchi stood by Mazen Adi, an adjunct professor of international law, who come under fire for previously working ​as ​a diplomat for the ​regime of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, during which he allegedly accused Israel of trafficking human organs.

“We’re fully aware of his past, having vetted his employment credentials,” Barch said. “Everything is absolutely in order.”

UN Watch is currently petitioning the university ​in an effort to​ terminate its employment with Adi. That petition had 4,586 signatures as of 11:34 a.m. on November 17.

But Barchi maintained that Adi hadn’t done anything that warranted him ​from ​being removed from his academic post.

“We face a difficult challenge to thread the needle on free speech and academic freedom,” Barchi said.

Indeed, the university has struggled in balancing the two, as well as free speech and hate speech.

“Rutgers’ position on free speech is clear: All of the members of our community, including faculty and staff, are free to express their viewpoints in public forums as private citizens,” university spokesperson Neal Buccino wrote in response to Chikandas’ alleged posts. "Yet at Rutgers University we must also foster an environment free from discrimination, as articulated in our policy prohibiting discrimination.”

Several weeks ago, the Rutgers student government held another town hall with university officials to try and find a line between hate speech and freedom of speech.

“Hate speech, it’s a term we use a lot, but in legal doctrine, hate speech is not really a term that has much meaning,” said Rutgers law professor Dean Ronald Chen. “The First Amendment says Congress shall pass no law infringing upon freedom of speech.”

“The courts have made clear that we cannot define speech we don’t protect in terms of how offensive someone will find them,” Chen added.

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