Faculty Unions Across the Country Push Back against Congressional Hearing on Campus Protests As Attacks on Campus Free Speech

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By David M. Greenwald
Executive Editor

Rutgers, NJ – Leaders of unions representing tens of thousands of faculty, graduate workers, and others at Rutgers University, the University of California, Los Angeles, and Northwestern University briefed the press in advance of Thursday’s hearing of the House Education and Workforce Committee, claiming their “extremist members are intent on assailing academic freedom and silencing campus free speech.”

In a joint statement released by unions at Rutgers University, Northwestern University, the University of California, and other campuses on Wednesday, they stated, “We believe this hearing and previous actions of the Committee represent an attack on the foundations of higher education and are part of a wider extremist effort to stifle and curtail freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression throughout society.”

They added, “We believe the protests on our campuses this spring fall squarely within the traditions of free speech and academic freedom.”

Todd Wolfson, President, Rutgers AAUP-AFT; Associate Professor, Rutgers University said on Wednesday that “we are coming down to DC to condemn in the strongest possible terms, the kangaroo court, which is these education workforce committee hearings.”

Wolfson continued, “We are coming down to Washington DC together because we see a crisis as our colleges and universities come under increasing attack.

“We have watched as higher education, which is the bedrock of democracy, as well as the engine for technological innovation, social mobility and social progress, as well as one of the most respected sectors in society has become a punching bag for bad faith actors like Congresswoman (Virginia) Fox, who declared that we are mealy mouthed and spineless.”

Wolfson noted that he is a Jewish faculty member and that he was at the Rutgers encampment multiple times during the week when that encampment was up.

“Not once did I feel unsafe. Not once did I see antisemitism,” he said adding, “What I did see was thoughtful criticism of the Israeli state, which is not equivalent with antisemitism and is something that I strongly believe and my union strongly believe is protected speech.”

He added that “what else I did see on campus was students that were standing up to all forms of hate, including both antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

The people at the encampment, he added, were not “outside agitators.”

“They were my students. Some of them were in classes of mine. Many of them walked the picket line with me the year before when all the faculty went on strike in the spring of 2023,” Wolfson said.

Caroline Luce is the communication chair of UC-AFT, at UCLA and is a lecturer at that school.

“Leaders from our union will be joining the delegation to Washington because we believe these hearings represent a dangerous attack on higher education, academic freedom, and free speech,” she said.  “At UCLA we have seen how failures to protect the rights of free speech and peaceful protests have put our students and colleagues at risk.”

Luce said, “The overly broad accusations of antisemitism levied by the Education and Workforce Committee have fueled violence against our students, including many of Jewish dissent. They legitimized physical and verbal harassment of the UCLA Palestine solidarity encampment from the very first day, inviting an escalating series of assaults which culminated in the worst incidents of violence in our campus’ history.”

She charged that these “counter-protesters” armed with metal pipes, wooden planks, knives, bricks, pepper spray, and fireworks, Proud boys, Kahanes and other bad faith actors attacked the encampment for hours, sending at least 25 students to the hospital for head trauma, broken bones, and severe lacerations.

She charged, “Chancellor Block failed to stop that horrific violence. Instead, he chose to call in multiple law enforcement agencies to violently clear the encampment the following night in direct violation of the University of California’s own de-escalation policies and inflicting further harm on our students and colleagues.”

She added, “It did not have to be this way.”

She believes that the decision to escalate by Chancellor Block came after “the Education and Workforce Committee summoned him to testify.”

She added, “It is these political attacks that have eroded shared governance and academic freedom on our campuses and resulted in decades of disinvestment in teaching and learning.”

Jackie Stevens teaches political science at Northwestern University.

She said, “We’re not a union. I teach political science and I’m here because we support academic freedom.”

She added, “So let us be clear, we oppose any efforts to remove President Michael Shill from his position in response to outside interest groups.  No university’s president’s position should be subject to the whims of political or societal pressure.”

Steven explained, “As university faculty, we are alarmed at the dual premise of Fox’s letter—on the one hand that protest and expression or anathema to learning in the university and on the other that the federal government’s place is to impose parameters of acceptable speech, in this case, on the campus of a private university.”

She noted, “Representative Fox’s letter vociferously declares antisemitism to be its concern, but absent evidence specific to our campus, it merely asserts a groundless smear that Northwestern is a ‘pro-terror hotbed.’”

Representative Fox, she continues, “launches numerous allegations based on two types of grievances, harms and threats and subjective claims of feeling unsafe under the guise of protecting students. Representative Fox flagrantly interferes with the self-determination that institutions such as ours must enjoy as an existential predicate to the free expression of ideas necessary for education.”

In addition, she charges, “specific allegations in Representative Fox’s letter distort or flat out misrepresent events and actions attributed to individual faculty at Northwestern. Neither inquiry nor citizens will be served by the obfuscation in fearmongering, which representative Fox’s letter brazenly enacts, especially when our own university’s internal process of due diligence and investigations have not yet occurred for any conjecture violations of rules and policy.”

Randi Weingarten, President of AFT, said “no one condones hate or violence.”

She said, “There is a difference between having a view on the conflict and demonizing the people that have a view on the conflict. And what is going on in terms of Virginia Fox and others on her house committee is that they have toxified, they have created toxic rhetoric that pit standing up to antisemitism and Islamophobia against academic freedom and the free speech rights of students, faculty and staff.”

She added, “In this democracy, we have to be able to be against hate and against violence and against religious discrimination and stand up for academic freedom and for the free expression, we can do both. We’ve always done both.”

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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