A Fine Line on Title VI

Editorial

Guarded: Students at the University of California, Berkeley stage a mock Israeli checkpoint in protest of Israeli policies.
Joel Siegal
Guarded: Students at the University of California, Berkeley stage a mock Israeli checkpoint in protest of Israeli policies.

Published March 16, 2012, issue of March 23, 2012.
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Some of the cases filed and rejected were, to put it generously, a reach. A daughter ejected from a basketball team because she’s Jewish? A child teased in elementary school? This is a federal offense? Even Kenneth L. Marcus, who as president and general counsel of The Louis D. Brandeis Center, has a laser focus on civil rights and Jewish students, reiterated in an interview that the community “should not bring suits that are ill-founded or frivolous.”

The weightier challenge is to find the appropriate balance between protecting individuals and ensuring free speech, especially since there already is a tendency among some Jews to view Title VI as a legal weapon in their fight against anti-Israel sentiment.

A draft resolution coming before a May plenary session of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs says it well: “It is not in the Jewish community’s best interest to invoke Title VI to promote a ‘politically correct’ environment in which legitimate debate about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is squelched and academic freedom is undermined, because use of the remedy in such circumstances could undermine its long-term effectiveness. It may also be in conflict with basic values of tolerance…”

And it may also not be good for the Jews.

Jewish students, that is.

Before embracing a law created to address centuries of horrific racial discrimination, we would do well to examine the message that sends to Jewish students, the vast majority of whom enjoy economic, social and educational privilege in our society. Shouldn’t they be strong enough to counter speech with more speech? Destructive ideas with constructive ones? And if not, isn’t it our job as parents, educators and communal leaders to instill knowledge and confidence in our children? There is a certain irony here, to see otherwise politically conservative leaders looking to the federal government for help.

Marcus argues that even the potential threat of a Title VI complaint can awaken an otherwise uncaring school administration to action. “The point is not to win individual cases. The point is to change the culture on campus,” he said, and arguably that is happening already. The vandalism at U.C. Riverside prompted a quick, definitive rebuke from President Yudof, whose predecessors may not have been so forthcoming.

Sadly, there will be extreme incidents where a Title VI remedy is a legitimate recourse; we should be grateful it exists. Still, it should be used sparingly and with respect for individuals and for history. Even the David Project, which has dialed back its once aggressive pro-Israel advocacy on campus, says in its latest report:

“There is widespread consensus that civil rights enforcement, including efforts to protect the rights of Jewish students, must respect freedom of speech and the doctrine of academic freedom. Contrary efforts could create a campus backlash against Israel supporters that erodes, rather than enhances, Israel’s standing.”

And, we might add, sends the wrong message to Jewish students and the community we hope they will lead someday.


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