Defining free speech: DSG’s role in funding speakers

Recently, Duke Student Government appropriated $16,835 for the Students for Justice in Palestine to host two speakers at their “Palestine 101” and “Narrating Resistance and Agency: Shifting the Discourse on Palestine” events. While the apportionment of such funds is traditionally a procedural stepping stone, this occasion has sparked controversy. Past comments by the speakers, particularly Mohammad El-Kurd, draw into question the role of DSG in monitoring and endorsing the language of speakers it chooses to grace with our tuition dollars. We raise the question of whether it was appropriate for DSG to fund these speakers, and whether new standards for funding similarly objectionable future speakers need to be established.

El-Kurd, an activist in the Palestinian community, has made antisemitic comments. In his book "Rifqa," he describes Israelis using blood tropes, “they [Israelis] harvest organs of the martyred [Palestinians], feed their warriors our own.” He even compared the actions of Israel to that of Nazi Germany. He has used the term “Kristallnacht” to refer to the Jewish treatment of Palestinians, alluding to the “Night of Broken Glass” in which Nazis carried out violence on Jewish organizations and buildings. In a tweet, he also stated that Zionism is a death cult. The other speaker, Dana AlHasan, has made similarly objectionable comments such as supporting Ahmad Saa’dat, who was charged with organizing the assassination of the Israeli tourism minister. It is important to note the distinction between an anti-Zionist standpoint and an antisemitic one. These speakers are patently antisemitic, as defined by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition that was recently approved by DSG. Thus, their comments should not be construed to be merely political disagreements on the Israel-Palestine conflict.

In light of the previous antisemitic comments, should Duke have spent student tuition dollars to bring these prejudiced speakers to campus? According to the Student Organization Finance Committee funding guidelines and procedures, SOFC seeks to fund student groups by inviting speakers to “share their diverse perspectives with our community.” However, shouldn’t DSG draw a line at funding speakers who are blatantly anti-semitic? Currently, little guidance exists regarding financing applications for speakers beyond loose financial brackets on honorarium compensation. Furthermore, no public documents exist to outline the conduct, qualifications or rhetoric deemed acceptable to grant DSG backing for speakers. It is time for our student government to enact reasonable guidelines that establish sound definitions of free speech and outline appropriate funding standards for speakers. 

One approach to reforming funding guidelines would be to approve the University of Chicago Principles of Free Expression, which have been adopted by Princeton and over 80 other universities. The Chicago Principles assert that college campuses house a diverse set of individuals with different political views, religious beliefs and personal opinions. While this disagreement of viewpoints may initially seem daunting, it represents an opportunity to strengthen one’s convictions and engage with other students and teachers. Likewise, a campus that discourages conversations between opposing groups will be more hostile than one which promotes respectful discourse. These University of Chicago Principles forbid only certain elements of free expression, such as slander, speech that incites violence or harassment and expressions that expressly violate the law. Thus, these guidelines act as a protection of free speech, particularly for language that may be deemed offensive by some groups, and seeks to promote civil discourse.  

Alternatively, DSG could produce guidance which recognizes that funding speakers provides implicit backing to the educational validity of their rhetoric. Thus, financing should not be provided to guests whose conduct is clearly objectionable such as those who promote hate speech. This would not abridge free speech, as the speakers would be well within their right to come to campus and speak their views, but instead limit the types of rhetoric which DSG endorses with our tuition dollars. While some may argue that this approach would draw a line banning all controversial speech, this is clearly without merit. Speakers who provide genuine value, whether their views are controversial or not, can and should apply for and receive funding. The distinction between the broader Chicago Principles and this approach is that speakers whose rhetoric is deemed to bring no inherent value will no longer be endorsed by DSG through receiving honorarium or travel financing.

Breaking down the funding for El-Kurd and AlHassan, the $16,835 dollars is divided into two categories—the reimbursement of transportation and housing expenses and the distribution of lecture honorariums. These two separate costs need to be treated differently. Honorariums are payments of goodwill that reflect the perceived worth of the speaker based on projected student attendance. The honorariums—totaling $5,000 dollars for each of the speakers in this case—are frankly not reflective of the value El-Kurd and AlHassan bring to campus, as their hateful speech marginalizes the Jewish population. Furthermore, only 35 students registered for the March 29 event with Dana AlHassan; the funding guidelines recommend an honorarium range of $200 - $800 for such a crowd. If transportation and housing costs were treated separately from speaker honorariums, then DSG would have the flexibility to bring speakers to campus without also paying them significant compensations. Speakers deemed to possess significant educational value and professional experience should be incentivized through higher honorariums. 

One strategy for apportioning honorariums could require a majority of DSG senators, without abstentions, to sign off on the proposed honorarium before granting it to the speaker. Since DSG senators are elected to reflect the views of the broader student body, this method would ensure that honorariums express a student-appraised value of the lecturer. When controversial speakers arise, senators would negotiate in order to agree on a price that is approved by the simple majority. Instead of engaging in these debates and negotiations, Senators tend to simply abstain, like the 35 senators in the previous vote, or vote based on other grounds since standardized guidelines for this process do not exist. For this strategy to be successful, senators would have to vote on speakers based on their educational value rather than whether they align with their individual personal views.

DSG should seek to thoroughly outline policies for funding speaker applications. Since speakers may have made questionable comments in the past, the student government needs to be equipped to analyze these applications. One such route would be to adopt the University of Chicago Principles that encourage discourse from a wide array of opinions. Another strategy would be to adopt a standard which refrains from endorsing hate speech through funding speakers which promote such content. Both approaches offer guidance on how to regulate free speech on college campuses. Furthermore, DSG must separate speaker transportation costs from the value of honorariums in its funding process. This would endow the student government with greater flexibility in bringing speakers to campus, allowing them to bring individuals to campus that may not be recipients of honorariums. Additionally, speakers could be denied transportation and housing costs, expressing a perceived lack of value in the content or rhetoric of the speaker.

In the future, DSG must take a more active role in deciding whether to fund controversial or offensive speakers. The student government cannot afford to maintain its policy of rampant absenteeism—it is unacceptable for 35 elected Senators to abstain from a precedent-shaping vote. Given the influence that DSG possesses in bringing speakers to Duke, our student government should reflect on what defines free speech on campus and to whom funding should be appropriated. For now, the question remains: where does DSG stand in defining the right to free speech on campus, and how will the organization approach the funding of future objectionable speakers? 

Editor’s Note: Ashley Bae and Preston Nibley have recused themselves from this article as members of DSG. Pilar Kelly and Andrew Murray have also recused themselves from this article as members of the Community Editorial Board.

The Community Editorial Board is independent from the editorial staff of The Chronicle. Their column usually runs on Tuesdays. 


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