THE BLOG
04/15/2014 05:15 pm ET Updated Jun 15, 2014

The Line Between Academic Freedom and Hate Speech

An interviewer once asked a women's rights activist whether she thought a particular religion could bring about social and political changes similar to how churches were instrumental in the end of slavery.

"Only if [that religion] is defeated," she responded strangely, as if not actually hearing the question. Seemingly caught off guard, the interviewer follows up several times... What do you mean defeat? As in defeat your enemy? Militarily?

"In all forms," she continued, "and if you don't do that, then you have to live with the consequence of being crushed."

Do me a quick favor. Insert 'Judaism' or 'Christianity' or even 'Atheism' into the brackets above. Now imagine giving countless interviews, writing multiple books and hosting seminars using similar language about how Jews, Christians or Atheists are followers of 'nihilistic cults of death' and need to have their civil liberties curtailed for the betterment of all humanity.

Would you expect to be rewarded for your other deeds despite these sentiments?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali suffered greatly as a Somali child in a well-documented story that involves, among other tragedies, genital mutilation and attempted forced marriage. She escaped, became an elected official in the Netherlands and now finds herself at Harvard, a living example of the promise of globalization and free society. She is rightly held up for her unimaginable bravery and was even named one of Time's 100 Most Influential People in 2005.

That influence has most recently earned her a fellowship at the Future of Diplomacy Project at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. Though she is not an academic nor does she teach a course for credit, she does hold a seminar for students every year and is now part of the greater academic community.

That influence also resulted in her initially being offered an honorary degree from Brandeis University, an honor that was subsequently rescinded last week, resulting in a polarized media frenzy. Led mostly by student and faculty protests, Brandeis drew a line in the sand.

She is a "compelling figure and an advocate for women's rights," President Lawrence said, but ultimately they as an institution "cannot overlook certain of her past statements that are inconsistent with Brandeis University's core values."

Pundits have since called this 'shameful' and an unacceptable act of 'thought policing', pointing to Brandeis awarding a controversial playwright the same honor a few years ago. The latter point might be valid, and if so signals a double standard that, when coupled with their apparent inability to use Google, points to astonishing levels of incompetence.

But ultimately the Brandeis decision was not about academic freedom or free speech. It was about hate. And hate apparently does not have a place in their core values.

Universities thrive off of discourse; none more so than Harvard's Kennedy School. Any given day an amazingly diverse array of some of the brightest individuals in the world teach, give speeches, and mingle with students. Often they disagree with one another but are able to use this forum to challenge peers, to strengthen arguments, to improve academic rigor, and to develop creative solutions to the world's most intransigent problems.

At institutions like this, academic freedom is of paramount importance. So should be tolerance.

As a member of the broader academic community (though also not a professor, Muslim nor a student), I am uncomfortable with the ability of someone with such a well-documented history of intolerance (admittedly alongside a similarly long history of fighting for women's rights) to be rewarded by, or even despite, her hate.

Hirsi Ali has done some amazing things for which she should be commended, but Brandeis ultimately realized that history would show that they would have honored not only a heroic women's rights advocate, but someone who has espoused hate for over a decade. They realized that when you bestow such an honor (or perhaps even a fellowship) on someone, you aren't choosing which parts of their legacy with which to associate while ignoring (willfully or ignorantly) the rest.

Though some might call for her fellowship to end in the coming days, I am not one of them. On the contrary, I think that her views should be part of a constructive dialogue. I'm sure she makes some valid points about Islam and women that should be part of the discussion; the problem is that these are usually surrounded by hate-filled rhetoric that, ironically, weakens her ability to convince those that don't agree with her (and limits my ability to link to her writing in this paragraph lest I be seen as condoning the bad with the good).

She should be matched (both in her seminar and in more public forums) with people who can challenge her views and, most importantly, offer a check to her (lack of) balance. An academic institution is the perfect place to show her how to construct more meaningful, impactful, and dare I say diplomatic, arguments.

At the same time, the broader academic community should start a discussion about the line between free speech and hate speech. Censorship is not the way forward nor should it be part of the discussion. But neither is unchecked hate speech. As institutions, where do we draw the line? When does lively debate turn into hateful bigotry? Is there room for hate speech in universities? If students, staff and faculty are offended by hateful statements, what better place than to discuss these issues than a university?

Ultimately many (at Brandeis, Harvard and beyond) have indeed been offended and hurt by her statements. This should be addressed. Universities are above all institutions of learning; if the learning process is disrupted and students (and faculty) are made to feel uncomfortable and/or unwelcome at their own school, something is wrong.

Differing opinions and the academic freedom to discuss them constitute the backbone of any university. Freedom of speech is a fundamental tenet of the United States constitution. But this is not about that anymore. Ultimately, though benefitting greatly from them, Hirsi Ali does not stand for academic freedom or free speech. She stands for hate.

And if anyone should know about the impact hate has on people, it is Ayaan Hirsi Ali.