UC Asks Public for Input in Rewriting Divisive Intolerance Policy

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Students sit next to the Bruin Bear statue on the UCLA campus. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

The University of California is going back to the drawing board Monday after a proposed policy on intolerance was rejected by Jewish organizations that say it doesn't go far enough to address anti-Semitism on UC's 10 campuses.

Others said the proposal would have impeded free speech. The university system has become a focal point in the discussion of freedom of expression on campus following several high-profile incidents, including one in which swastikas were spray-painted on a Jewish fraternity house.

UC's Board of Regents is gathering public input Monday at a forum at the University of California, Los Angeles, and dozens are expected to voice their opinions. In September, the board considered a policy drafted by the UC president's office that would have rejected intolerance and upheld academic freedom.

Jewish groups said it was too weak and needed to specifically address anti-Semitism.

"We understand that the university has an obligation to ensure freedom of speech," said Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, a professor at UC Santa Cruz and director of the AMCHA Initiative, which investigates cases of anti-Semitism on college campuses. "However, they also have an obligation to ensure safety and civil rights."

UC President Janet Napolitano
UC President Janet Napolitano (Astrid Riecken/Getty Images)

Rossman-Benjamin and various Jewish groups want UC to adopt the U.S. State Department's definition of anti-Semitism.

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UC President Janet Napolitano said in a radio interview in May that she believed the university system should adopt the State Department's definition. Her remarks drew criticism from free speech advocates and those critical of Israel's policy toward Palestinians, saying they feared the university policy could be used to silence them.

"I do believe it is the most authoritative and well-respected definition of anti-Semitism that is consistent with the understanding of the vast majority of the Jewish community," said Rossman-Benjamin, who is scheduled to speak Monday.

The proposed policy had defined intolerance as "unwelcome conduct" motivated by discrimination or hatred toward a group or individuals. It had outlined various acts -- including harassment, hate speech and derogatory use of cultural symbols -- but did not address any particular group.

Peter Scheer, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, said it would be difficult for the board's working group to draft a policy that more precisely defines intolerance without infringing on free speech protections.

"In all but the most extreme circumstances, they're going to find that the First Amendment is an obstacle that they cannot surmount and shouldn't," he said.