Lawfare Project calls on PEN America to reconsider conclusions in recently released report on campus speech

After reading PEN America’s recently released report entitled “And Campus for All: Diversity, Inclusion, and Free Speech at U.S. Universities,”The Lawfare Project was dismayed to find that the self-proclaimed “American arm of the world’s leading free expression organization” had implicitly (even if unintentionally) adopted an anti-Israel narrative. Although both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian debate are assessed in PEN’s analysis of UCLA’s campus, we staunchly disagree with the report’s portrayal of Jewish and Israel-advocating students as aggressors and violators of the constitutional rights of pro-Palestinian activists. The Lawfare Project sent a letter to PEN America describing our concern that, in order to remain true to principles of neutrality and nonpartisanship in its assessment of the crucial issues within its mandate, PEN America must reassess its conclusions in the context of the report’s “Case Study UCLA.”

Particularly disturbing was the realization that PEN America convened a panel to discuss the report, specifically with regard to issues of campus speech and free expression, which included UCLA Vice Chancellor for Equity, Diversion and Inclusion, Prof. Jerry Kang. Prof. Kang has been accused of engaging in a proactive campaign to attack, malign, isolate and delegitimize Milan Chatterjee, an Indian-American former law student and Graduate Students Association (GSA) President at UCLA. Mr. Chatterjee, represented by the California law firm of Glaser Weil along with The Lawfare Project, chose to transfer to NYU Law School to escape the harassment, intimidation and silencing that he endured at UCLA, with the endorsement of Prof. Kang, because of Chatterjee’s commitment to keeping the GSA neutral on “Israel-Palestine politics” and refusing to allow the GSA to co-sponsor an event with groups which were either promoting or opposing the hateful and discriminatory BDS movement. We were astonished to see Prof. Kang invited by PEN America as a legitimate panelist in a discussion aimed at deescalating tensions on campus and protecting free expression.

The Lawfare Project emphatically rejects the report’s characterization of Jewish, pro-Israel students as a threat to free speech on U.S. campuses — especially as compared to the groups who are actively and threateningly silencing those Jewish, pro-Israel students — and, if PEN is to remain the world’s most recognized and respected organization on issues of free speech, it must do the same. We remain incredibly grateful for PEN America and its profound dedication to monitoring and addressing the suppression and erosion of First Amendment rights; like PEN, we are deeply committed to free speech protections and civilized debate — particularly when based on accurate facts, history, and the pursuit of truth.

It is our hope that a second look at the UCLA Case Study with this information in mind will encourage PEN America to reconsider the messages sent in its most recent report. As the preeminent organization dedicated to the protection of free speech, PEN America must shine a spotlight on the inherent irony — and profound danger — of the rampant, unchecked proliferation of the anti-Israel narrative, especially when it is couched in a discussion of free expression.

Benjamin Ryberg