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The University of Michigan Failed To Protect My Right To Free Speech

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Josh Hammer

I arrived at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor on Thursday, Nov. 16 to deliver a speech on Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza. The talk’s blunt title, selected by the local Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) chapter, reflected my own unambiguous approach to the conflict: “Israel’s Righteous Fight Against Jihadism.” Given the nature of the talk, given the highly noxious climate now pervading campuses when it comes to this topic in particular, and given the harrowing images of massive anti-Israel gatherings in nearby Dearborn, I anticipated possible fireworks and worked with YAF on event security measures.

Those security measures, unfortunately, turned out to be necessary.

Within minutes of starting my speech, 20 to 25 protestors stood up in unison. They held their arms high in the air to expose their shirts, which featured photos of Palestinian Arabs who have died in Gaza since the war started. (The students are unaware of, or simply disinterested in, the fact that every one of those deaths is legally attributable to Hamas under international law.) Undeterred, I continued. A few minutes later, the students began obnoxiously coughing in unison each time I opened my mouth in a clear attempt to drown me out. I reminded them of the university’s code of conduct, which prohibits shouting down speakers, but that only made them cough louder.

Shortly after that, the mass coughing turned into shouting, coordinated by a visible ringleader toward the front of the pack. The chants would be familiar to those who have paid attention to the explosion of on-campus antisemitism since the Hamas Holocaust of Oct. 7: “Remember their names!,” “Free Palestine!,” “Stop the genocide!” and so forth. At one point, a protestor started to walk briskly toward the stage, prompting my body man to leap out of his front-row seat to protect me. Finally, a tepid university administrator replaced me at the podium, seemingly to once again remind the students that their conduct violated university policy. He too was drowned out; his exhortations were largely inaudible.

Eventually, the protestors escorted themselves out of the back of the room. They never ceased chanting, and proceeded to physically bang on the walls of the lecture hall exterior once they exited — leaving red handprints all over the wall behind them, since they had painted their hands blood-red. The whole disruption lasted probably 30 to 35 minutes, after which I finished my remarks for those who had the patience to remain in their seats. After student Q&A and photos, a campus police officer escorted me to my friend’s car.

Let’s be clear about what happened: The University of Michigan, one of the nation’s preeminent public universities, failed to secure my First Amendment right to free speech. Even more important, the university failed to secure the other half of the right to free speech: the right to freely listen, especially for those who drove hours to Ann Arbor just to hear my talk. University administrators and campus police officers acted shamefully in failing to suppress the pro-Hamas students’ heckler’s veto — a disreputable act that here, there and everywhere falls outside the scope of First Amendment-protected activity under well-established case law, and which may even be prosecutable depending on the jurisdiction.

The pro-jihadist students seemed to intuit they could act with impunity quickly. The day after my disrupted talk, in a video now seen millions of times on social media, a mob of antisemitic protestors stormed the office of University of Michigan President Santa Ono, chanting “No justice, no peace!” as they bombarded their way past campus police to infiltrate and occupy the office space. All this, it seems, because a conservative student group had the temerity to host a Jewish, pro-Israel speaker the night prior.

The inmates are running the asylum these days at America’s most prestigious universities. Absent firm and unequivocal punishment of students who violate universities’ code of conduct, and perhaps the law itself, we can only expect more of the same sordid behavior.

Fortunately, universities are not powerless in such circumstances. In April 2019, I was personally present at my alma mater, the University of Chicago Law School, to see fellow alumnus and legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich speak about the First Amendment and state-level anti-BDS (“Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions”) legislation. He too was shouted down by a not-so-merry band of jihadist sympathizers. There too, campus police was shamefully slow to act. But ultimately, when the dust settled weeks later, the University of Chicago took a very necessary scalp: The law student ringleader of the protest was kicked out of the law school and told not to reapply for two to three years — a de facto expulsion.

If free speech is to have any chance of prevailing on university campuses amidst the current climate of nihilism, Jew-hatred and jihad-sympathy, we need to take a lot more scalps. The University of Michigan, which failed to secure my First Amendment right to free speech on Nov. 16, would be a fine place to start.





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