America’s campuses are supposed to be places where ideas can be discussed openly and freely.

Most Americans by now realize that the key word in the previous sentence is "supposed."

But a recent event at San Francisco State University — and the way the university responds to it — may be pivotal in determining whether it will remain possible to take the academic claim to foster a diversity of ideas seriously any more.

Though universities generally ban "hate speech," speech aimed at Jews and Israel is apparently excluded. San Francisco State, reports Laurie Zoloth, SFSU’s head of Jewish Studies, has become a place in which blood libels and posters reading "Jews=Nazis" have become common.

Zoloth described the event in a widely circulated email that was eventually published on Meryl Yourish’s weblog: 

Yesterday, the hatred coalesced in a hate mob. Yesterday's Peace In The Middle East Rally was completely organized by the Hillel students, mostly 18 and 19 years old. They spoke about their lives at SFSU and of their support for Israel, and they sang of peace...

As soon as the community supporters left, the 50 students who remained praying in a minyan for the traditional afternoon prayers, or chatting, or cleaning up after the rally, talking — were surrounded by a large, angry crowd of Palestinians and their supporters.

But they were not calling for peace. They screamed at us to "go back to Russia" and they screamed that they would kill us all, and other terrible things. They surrounded the praying students, and the elderly women who are our elder college participants, who survived the Shoah, who helped shape the Bay Area peace movement, only to watch as a threatening crowd shoved the Hillel students against the wall of the plaza...

As the counter demonstrators poured into the plaza, screaming at the Jews to "Get out or we will kill you" and "Hitler did not finish the job," I turned to the police and to every administrator I could find and asked them to remove the counter demonstrators from the Plaza, to maintain the separation of 100 feet that we had been promised.

The police told me that they had been told not to arrest anyone, and that if they did, "it would start a riot." I told them that it already was a riot. Finally, Fred Astren, the Northern California Hillel Director, and I went up directly to speak with Dean Saffold, who was watching from her post a flight above us. She told us she would call in the SF police. But the police could do nothing more than surround the Jewish students and community members who were now trapped in a corner of the plaza, grouped under the flags of Israel, while an angry, out of control mob, literally chanting for our deaths, surrounded us. Dr. Astren and I went to stand with our students.

This was neither free speech nor discourse, but raw, physical assault. Was I afraid? No, really more sad that I could not protect my students.

Not one administrator came to stand with us. I knew that if a crowd of Palestinian or black students had been there, surrounded by a crowd of white racists screaming racist threats, shielded by police, the faculty and staff would have no trouble deciding which side to stand on.

Yes. Just compare the University’s actions to its Principles of Conduct for a Multi-Cultural University and its Definition of Hate Incidents, Speech that is Not Protected by the 1st Amendment, and Guidelines for the Prevention of Hate Crimes and Incidents.

Several days later, the President of SFSU, released a letter condemning the assaults, and promising to punish the perpetrators. The letter isn’t bad, but it’s not clear whether anything will really happen before the academic year ends. 

But so far this event, and the university’s tepid response, is simply the latest stage in a long-standing and widespread trend of giving some student groups the permission to engage in behavior that the university would not permit for a moment if it came from groups not favored as politically correct.

The result of impunity, of course, is escalation. Just as the toleration of "broken windows" and other petty acts of lawbreaking leads to more serious crime, so a policy of tolerating acts of lawlessness by overpoliticized students leads to more serious problems.

Such previous events as the theft of conservative student newspapers by groups who disagree with them (as happened earlier this year at Berkeley when an entire press run of the Cal Patriot was stolen from its offices) have now escalated to riot. If it is not addressed, last week’s riot may be next week’s — or next year’s — politically motivated murder.

Such may seem unthinkable to Americans, but we saw such behavior on college campuses thirty-five years ago, and we’re seeing such behavior in Europe now. The tolerance of smaller-scale violence and illegality by university administrators has laid the foundation for worse in the future, unless swift action establishes an example that such acts are not tolerated.

Blogger Joe Katzman has published some suggestions for SFSU alumni and interested parties to take to ensure that the university acts as it has promised: Students involved in illegality should be expelled, student groups involved should be decertified and donors and alumni should let the university know that these things need to be done, or there will be consequences.

The good news is that some campuses already take this sort of anti-social behavior more seriously. Virginia Tech, for example, is pressing felony charges against vandals who spray-painted slogans during the "Take Back the Night" demonstrations. (And they were  reportedly politically-correct slogans, like "smash patriarchy").

People shouldn’t be punished for demonstrating, or for counter-demonstrating, regardless of their views. Had the riot at SFSU targeted black, or gay, or Muslim students, there would have been a media explosion, and campus administrators around the country would be holding meetings and taking steps to prevent such events at their schools. But violence, threats of violence, theft and vandalism should be punished. No matter who the guilty party is.

Glenn Harlan Reynolds is a law professor at the University of Tennessee and publishes InstaPundit.Com. He is co-author, with Peter W. Morgan, of The Appearance of Impropriety: How the Ethics Wars Have Undermined American Government, Business, and Society (The Free Press, 1997).

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