If We Say Yes: On Open Letters and Campus Protests

ACTIVISM, 20 May 2024

Amia Srinivasan | London Review of Books – TRANSCEND Media Service

23 May 2024 Issue An open letter​ is an unloved thing. Written by committee and in haste, it is a monument to compromise: a minimal statement to which all signatories can agree, or – worse – a maximal statement that no signatory fully believes. Some academics have a general policy against signing them. I discovered that was true of some of my Oxford colleagues last year, when I drafted and circulated an open letter condemning Israel’s attack on Gaza and calling for a ceasefire. Some, like those who are in precarious employment or whose immigration status isn’t settled, have good reasons for adopting such a policy. Others understandably don’t want to put their name to something that doesn’t perfectly represent their views, especially when it might be read as a declaration of faith. I always cringe at the self-importance of the genre: though open letters can sometimes exert influence, stiffly worded exhortations hardly suffice to stop states, militaries, bombs. And yet, a ‘no open letters’ policy can serve as a convenient excuse when one is hesitant to stand up for one’s political principles.

In the last seven months, there have been many more open letters on Gaza. I have signed some of them. One, in November, was a reply to a statement published by a group of prominent German intellectuals, Jürgen Habermas among them, who had lambasted anyone who accused Israel of flirting with genocide. ‘Despite all the concern for the fate of the Palestinian population,’ the statement read, ‘the standards of judgment slip completely when genocidal intentions are attributed to Israel’s actions.’ It went on to suggest that attributions of genocidal intent were an expression of antisemitism. The response, which I signed along with Adam Tooze, Samuel Moyn, Chandra Talpade Mohanty and others, condemned Hamas’s actions of 7 October and affirmed the ‘vital need to protect Jewish life in Germany in the face of rising antisemitism’. It insisted that we must not ‘close down the space for debate and reflection about the possibility of genocide’, while noting that not all the signatories believed that Israel’s actions constituted genocide. This even-handedness did not stop an editor at the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung from declaring, with our letter in mind, that Jews have an ‘enemy’ at universities.

In April, the critical theorist Nancy Fraser, who had also signed the letter criticising the statement by Habermas et al, had an invitation to visit the University of Cologne as its Albertus Magnus Professor rescinded. Cologne justified the disinvitation on the grounds that Fraser had signed yet another letter, ‘Philosophy for Palestine’, which questioned ‘Israel’s right to exist as an “ethno-supremacist state”’, and called for an academic and cultural boycott of Israeli institutions – a call that Cologne said was ‘irreconcilable’ with its ‘close ties to Israeli partner institutions’. Fraser, herself Jewish, described her cancellation as an instance of ‘philosemitic McCarthyism’ – ‘a way to silence people under the pretext of supposedly supporting Jews’.

Also last month I signed a petition, launched by the political theorist Enzo Rossi, protesting against the suspension of Jodi Dean, a professor of politics at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, from her academic duties. In a blog post, Dean – a communist and anti-Zionist – had remarked of the early scenes from 7 October:

Who could not feel energised seeing oppressed people bulldozing the fences enclosing them, taking to the skies in escape, and flying freely through the air? The shattering of the collective sense of the possible made it seem as if anyone could be free, as if imperialism, occupation and oppression can and will be overthrown.

Four days later, Mark D. Gearan, president of Hobart and William Smith, announced that Dean was being suspended from teaching pending an investigation. ‘As a result of Professor Dean’s comments,’ he explained, ‘there now may be students on our campus who feel threatened in or outside of the classroom.’ An email, with the subject line ‘Invitation to Participate in Investigation’, has been sent to Hobart and William Smith students by a law firm retained by the college ‘to conduct an independent investigation into whether Professor Jodi Dean has violated policies or standards of the Colleges prohibiting harassment and discrimination’. The email asks students to contact the investigative team directly ‘should you have any information that is relevant to our investigation’.

On 15 April students at Columbia University and Barnard College set up a Gaza solidarity encampment on a university lawn, just hours before Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, was hauled in front of Congress to answer questions about the way her administration was dealing with the ‘rising antisemitism on campus’. The next day, Shafik authorised the NYPD’s Strategic Response Group to enter Columbia’s campus. They did so, in full riot gear, and arrested more than a hundred student protesters. The police reported that the students they arrested ‘were peaceful, offered no resistance whatsoever’. Visiting the Columbia campus the following week, the speaker of the House of Representatives, Mike Johnson, suggested the National Guard be brought in to deal with the students, whom he called ‘lawless agitators and radicals’. With their encampment dismantled, the students built another on a different lawn, and occupied a university building; mass arrests again followed. One Columbia professor commented: ‘When I saw that police “tank” coming up the street, something in my heart broke. I stood and sobbed. The trustees had broken their compact with the university and I do not know it will come back.’ On 22 April, more than a hundred Columbia faculty members held a rally to protest against the arrests and suspensions of their students. The day before, I had signed an open letter – along with three thousand other academics from around the world – that pledges us to uphold ‘an academic and cultural boycott of Columbia University’.

While Columbia was not the first university to call the cops on its students during the current wave of protests, its heavy-handed intervention galvanised students across the US and abroad, and set the template for their protests: the solidarity encampment. More than two thousand students in the US have been arrested, from Yale and NYU to the University of Northern Carolina, Emory (Georgia), Vanderbilt (Tennessee) and Pomona (California). At SUNY Purchase, a public liberal arts college in upstate New York, students gathered, without tents, on campus to protest; when the college’s ‘quiet hours’ began at 10 p.m., the students sat down and fell silent. The cops came in anyway and arrested seventy people, including faculty observers and students who had tried to flee the protest after the police ordered them to disperse. At Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, police body-slammed a Jewish labour historian in her mid-sixties. At Emory an economics professor was wrestled to the ground by the police for objecting to their manhandling of a student; she was charged with battery for ‘resisting’ arrest. At the Universities of Ohio and Indiana snipers were stationed on rooftops. At UCLA, pro-Israel counter-protesters attacked the Gaza encampment for hours with sticks, traffic cones, bear spray and fireworks as police and campus security stood by; the following night, riot police attacked the encampment with rubber bullets and bean bag rounds. Such actions are not confined to the US. Early in May, at the University of Amsterdam, masked far-right activists attacked the Gaza solidarity encampment with flares just a few hours after it was set up, while the police looked on. That night, riot police dismantled the camp with bulldozers, knocking one protester unconscious and injuring several others.

In April​ I was asked to sign a letter opposing the University of Cambridge’s investigation into Nathan Cofnas, a Leverhulme early career fellow in philosophy. A self-described ‘race realist’, Cofnas has written widely in defence of abhorrently racist – particularly anti-Black – views, invoking what he claims are the findings of the science of heredity. In 2022, when he was first appointed, Cambridge students protested, to no effect. Student calls for his dismissal started up again this year, after Cofnas published a blog post in which he claimed that in a meritocracy the number of Black professors at Harvard would ‘approach zero per cent’ and Black people would ‘disappear from almost all high-profile positions outside of sports and entertainment’. At a protest outside the Cambridge philosophy faculty, students chanted ‘Fire Nathan Cofnas’; a student petition calling for his dismissal has more than a thousand signatures. This time, Cambridge has responded. On 5 April, Emmanuel College wrote to terminate Cofnas’s research affiliation, explaining that his blog post ‘amounted to, or could reasonably be construed as amounting to, a rejection of Diversity, Equality and Inclusion (DEI and EDI) policies’. Cambridge’s philosophy faculty and the Leverhulme Trust are both investigating Cofnas; his employment status presumably hangs in the balance.

There were things about the letter, which I had no part in drafting, that I did not like. It did not contain a condemnation of Cofnas’s racism, noting only that signing the letter ‘does not indicate endorsement of Dr Cofnas’s views’. It did not draw a distinction between supporting Cofnas and objecting to Cambridge’s investigation of him. It did not note that academic freedom isn’t the same thing as free speech: that the former is about academics’ rights to make content-based discriminations in speech based on their disciplinary expertise, while the latter is about everyone’s right to be free of content-based speech restrictions in the public sphere. (It may well be that Cofnas’s academic work, in its racism, does not meet the disciplinary standards of philosophy; but Cambridge evidently thought otherwise when they hired him, at which point his views were already on record.) The letter did not oppose itself squarely enough to the spectre of universities terminating academic employment on the basis of complaints about extramural speech. It did not canvass the possibility that students have a right not to be taught by someone who is on the record expressing the view that, if a student is Black, they are almost certainly less intelligent – let alone make an effort to distinguish that matter from the question of whether the university has the right to fire Cofnas from his research post. I didn’t especially like some of the company I would be keeping if I signed the letter: the other signatories include a philosopher whom I’ve repeatedly and publicly criticised for having a weird obsession with defending the permissibility of killing disabled people, and a talking head who was an associate of Jeffrey Epstein. And the letter did not tie the defence of academics’ speech in the Cofnas case to the broader principle that is being ravaged in the UK, US, Germany, Israel and elsewhere.

I signed it nevertheless. Six months ago my objections to the framing of the letter might have stopped me. But I thought about Jodi Dean, her suspension from teaching, and the investigation she is undergoing on the grounds that she may make some of her students feel unsafe. I thought about the German Jews who have been disciplined by the state in their protests against Israel’s war, on the absurd grounds that they are being antisemitic. I thought about the students who have been arrested while peacefully protesting against an inhumane war, because they have been deemed by university administrators to be a threat to the safety of their fellow Jewish students (never mind that many of the protesting students are themselves Jewish). I thought about the former presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, who were both forced to resign in a Republican witch hunt ostensibly about antisemitism but really about right-wing anger at university autonomy. I thought about colleagues at state universities in Florida, who are barred from teaching on their general education courses that ‘systemic racism, sexism, oppression and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States.’ I thought about colleagues in Texas, who can now have their tenure revoked because of ‘moral turpitude’. I thought about colleagues in Israel who wrote to me, soon after their government began its attack on Gaza, about the choice they faced between speaking out and keeping their jobs. I thought about Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, the Palestinian legal scholar and Israeli citizen, who was suspended by Hebrew University for calling for the abolition of Zionism, and later detained by Israeli police, strip-searched and handcuffed, and subjected to questions about her published views on international law and colonialism. I thought about Israa University, the last remaining university in Gaza, demolished by Israel in January.

The point is not that Cofnas is just the same as the many people in the crosshairs of the right’s war on academic freedom and free speech. The point is not – noxious as he is – Cofnas at all. Rather, the point is simply this. Do we think that students should be able to trigger investigations into academics on the grounds that their extramural speech makes them feel unsafe? Do we want to fuel the right’s sense of grievance towards the university, when their minority presence within it is owed to the robust correlation between education and political liberalism, not some Marxist plot? Do we want to empower university administrators to fire academics on the grounds that they are attracting negative publicity? Do we think there is any guarantee that a further strengthened institutional power will only be wielded against those whose views and politics we abhor? If we say yes, what picture of power – theirs and ours – does that presume?

To which​ a devil’s advocate might say: isn’t that a mug’s game? Maybe. As I’ve argued in the LRB before, ‘free speech’ and ‘academic freedom’ are, for many on the right, ideological notions, weapons to be wielded against the left and the institutions it is (falsely) believed to control, the university most of all.* Some conservatives have, admirably, stood up for academic freedom in recent months, even where it presumably hurts them to do so; both the Princeton professor of jurisprudence Robert P. George and Sohrab Ahmari, the editor of Compact, spoke out against the suspension of Dean while objecting strongly to her views. But notably absent from the letter in support of Dean were the signatures of many prominent free-speech warriors, including Steven Pinker, Greg Lukianoff, Jonathan Haidt, Conor Friedersdorf, Jordan Peterson and Bari Weiss.

The free-speech brigade has also found justifications for the draconian repression of student protest. Weiss, citing the appalling, albeit rare, instances of antisemitism in the student protests, has complained that universities are going soft on them because of left-wing bias. Peterson has cheered on university presidents as they order the dismantling of what he calls ‘pro- Hamas’ encampments. Lukianoff, in a piece for the Sunday Times, offered a lukewarm defence of students’ right to free speech, before arguing that the current protests aren’t exercises of free speech directed at an inhumane war, but rather the expression of ‘groupthink’ cultivated ‘through ideological filters on hiring, promotion and even teaching’. Pinker has called Harvard’s student protesters ‘poisonous’ to the university’s ‘mission’, and argued that it would be justified in calling the cops on them. Like Lukianoff, Pinker draws a contrast between genuine free speech and the speech of the student protesters: ‘A university should be a forum in which people offer arguments backed by reason and guided by the search for common ground,’ he says, not ‘a place where they issue “demands” chanted in rhyming slogans’.

In so arguing, Lukianoff and Pinker aren’t simply denigrating the antiwar student protesters as mindless woke drones. They are implicitly equating freedom of speech with freedom of discussion and debate. But protest, too, is a mode of public speech, which – like free discussion – is vital to democracy. Self-styled defenders of ‘free speech’ like Pinker and Lukianoff ignore this fact, allowing them to square a commitment to free speech with the repression of protest. As the University of Chicago philosopher Anton Ford recently put it in the Chronicle of Higher Education, ‘if a university only acknowledges expression aimed at discovering truth, then all campus speech is measured by the yardstick of a seminar discussion, and basic democratic values are sacrificed.’ Ford traces this narrow construal of free speech to the Chicago Statement, an approach to campus speech that was adopted (without, ironically, faculty or student consultation) by the University of Chicago in 2014, and which has since been adopted by more than a hundred US higher education institutions – including many that have (like the University of Chicago) forcefully repressed student protests in recent months. While the Chicago Statement nods to the right to protest – and has been used by universities to defend that right – it nonetheless takes reasoned discussion as the paradigm of free speech. ‘The University’s fundamental commitment,’ the statement says, ‘is to the principle that debate or deliberation may not be suppressed.’ The word ‘protest’ is used just once in the statement, to describe an attempt to silence speech.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), of which Lukianoff is president and CEO, led the campaign to have the Chicago Statement widely adopted by US educational institutions. FIRE recently published a statement arguing that university bans on encampments do not violate the First Amendment, since free speech can legitimately be subject to restrictions on ‘time, place and manner’. That is indeed the standard understanding of how the First Amendment works. But one crucial test of ‘time, place and manner’ restrictions is that they be as narrowly tailored as possible (only as stringent as needed to protect the normal functioning of the relevant institution), thereby leaving ample room for expressive conduct. Many universities have failed this test. The temporary student encampments are often consistent with the normal functioning of universities, for example by observing ‘quiet hours’, not stopping students from attending classes, and even hosting classes and study groups. Where they are not – where, for example, the noise from an encampment disrupts classes – administrators should impose the minimal measures required for normal functioning to resume. And where student protesters engage in violence or harassment, a university’s disciplinary codes should be fairly applied. (As the legal philosopher Brian Leiter observes, ‘such incidents do not justify ending the protest and encampment, except under an indefensible principle of collective punishment.’)

Another crucial test is that ‘time, place and manner’ restrictions, and their application, be politically neutral. But it is no secret that university administrators, in their decisions about how to handle the protests, are bowing to partisan political pressure from pro-Israel legislators and donors. On 10 November, Columbia suspended its chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, invoking a new policy that had been revised, unilaterally and with minimal communication to the student population, by top-level university administrators just two weeks earlier. The policy change introduced new ‘time, place and manner’ constraints – the category of ‘special events’ that had to be pre-approved was expanded to include any that would have more than 25 attendees or that took place outdoors – and gave the administration ‘sole discretion’ to sanction student groups that violated them. The changes came three weeks after pro-Palestinian student groups had started protesting on Columbia’s campus (along with counter-protests organised by the Columbia Chapter of Students Supporting Israel, who were not suspended). The protests had provoked the ire of conservative politicians and donors. One hedge-fund billionaire alumnus declared on Fox: ‘I think these kids at the colleges have shit for brains. I’ve given to Columbia probably about fifty million dollars, over many years, and I’m gonna suspend my giving.’ Another hedge-fund billionaire resigned from the board of the Columbia Business School, citing ‘blatantly anti-Jewish student groups and professors allowed to operate with complete impunity’, rendering Jews ‘not just unwelcome, but also unsafe on campus’.

When it comes to student protest, the UK’s self-declared free-speech defenders have been taking notes. ‘Why is it in America that the most appalling anti-Israel and pro-Hamas statements have all been coming from the nation’s campuses?’ Douglas Murray asked on Fox. The answer, he said, was straightforward: ‘It is that they have been miseducating them, misinforming them, very very often through very hostile actors who are not just anti-Israel but anti-American.’ Murray is a director of the Free Speech Union (FSU), which claims that academic freedom is one of the ‘five freedoms’ it protects unequivocally and without partisan considerations. But for Murray academic freedom extends only to those who aren’t indoctrinating the youth with their criticisms of Israel or the US. The FSU’s founder, Toby Young, has been silent about the attacks on students’ anti-war protests, though in private correspondence he told me that his position on this was ‘the same as FIRE’s’ – that is, that forcible repression of protest is often acceptable because of ‘time, place and manner’ restrictions. Soon after 7 October, Young issued a statement saying that ‘the abduction, slaughter and rape of over a thousand Israeli men, women and children should be universally condemned by every university, college, museum, Whitehall department, football club, institution, in England.’ A question: if universities and colleges ‘should’ condemn Hamas’s morally abhorrent attack, why ‘shouldn’t’ they also condemn Israel’s morally abhorrent war of revenge? Rishi Sunak has summoned university vice chancellors from across the UK to Downing Street to discuss the ‘unacceptable rise in antisemitism’ on British campuses and ‘the need for universities to be safe for our Jewish students’. A spokesman for the prime minister said he expects ‘robust action’ against the protesters.

After signing the letter criticising the investigation into Cofnas, I was written to by someone from the Committee for Academic Freedom, which bills itself as a non-partisan group of academics from across the political spectrum. He asked me whether I might consider signing up to the CAF’s ‘three principles’. I looked them up: ‘I. Staff and students at UK universities should be free, within the limits of the law, to express any opinion without fear of reprisal.’ ‘II. Staff and students at UK universities should not be compelled to express any opinion against their belief or conscience.’ ‘III. UK universities should not promote as a matter of official policy any political agenda or affiliate themselves with organisations promoting such agendas.’ I thought about it for a bit. I’m on board with Principle II, so long as we don’t think that asking staff and students to use someone’s correct pronouns is akin to demanding they swear a loyalty oath. Principle I is problematic, because it doesn’t register that academic freedom essentially involves viewpoint-based discrimination – that indeed the whole point of academic freedom is to protect academics’ rights to exercise their expert judgment in hiring, peer review, promotion, examining, conferring degrees and so on. And Principle III would prevent universities from condemning, say, Israel’s systematic destruction of universities and schools in Gaza, which I think as educational institutions they are entitled to do.

I then clicked on the CAF’s ‘Who We Are’ section, and found that one of the organisation’s seven advisory board members is Nigel Biggar. In my piece on free speech last year, I had noted that Biggar was a member of the FSU; I described him as ‘the emeritus Oxford theologian who has insisted that the British Empire “was not essentially racist, exploitative or wantonly violent”’; and I said that he is among those who long for ‘a more traditional – often explicitly Christian – social morality’. This was the sum total of my comments about Biggar. So I was surprised – genuinely surprised – when Biggar retweeted a post by the conservative academic Bruce Gilley, which linked to my piece with the following description: ‘Tenured South Asian radical @amiasrinivasan says @NigelBiggar should be fired for rejecting the mantra that “Britain must own up to its colonial past” and saying “the British Empire was not essentially racist, exploitative, or wantonly violent.”’

I decided to write an email to Biggar, with the subject line ‘collegiality’:

Dear Nigel,

I was stunned to see that you had retweeted a tweet by Bruce Gilley claiming that I had said in the LRB that you should be fired for your views on British colonialism. Evidently, you did not read the ten thousand-word piece Gilley cited, since in it I say no such thing. I mention you and your views only in connection with your work with the Free Speech Union and the broader network of academics and politicians who helped usher into existence the new academic freedom Act. While I don’t agree with many of your substantive views, I never suggest that you should be in any way censured for them. On the contrary, in the piece I vociferously defend the rights of academics not to be fired for the exercise of their academic freedom, condemn several cases in which students have called for professors’ heads (including Finnis and Stock), and criticise the ‘university administrators who ... too often cravenly seek to appease’ students.

All this you would know had you taken the time to read the piece yourself. Indeed I cannot quite believe that I am having to write this email to a fellow academic – effectively saying the thing I say far too often to my students: have you actually done the reading? Clearly for Bruce Gilley careful reading and truthful representation do not matter; my piece becomes an occasion for another salvo in whatever ideological battle he is fighting. But I would have hoped for better from you, as an Oxford colleague.

Finally, I wonder what you make of Gilley calling me a ‘tenured South Asian radical’? Do you think it’s dialectically useful to reduce people to their ethnic origins? Do you think this is an intellectually respectful thing to do to another academic? Would you encourage Oxford students to introduce the authors they read with reductivist demographic labels?

I attach both a screenshot of the tweet, and a PDF of my LRB piece. I look forward to your reply.

All best wishes,


I sent the email in June 2023, and am still waiting for Biggar’s reply. Last time I checked, the retweet was still there.

The latest​ open letter I have signed was drafted by some of my colleagues at Oxford, in support of a student pro-Palestinian encampment set up early on the morning of 6 May on the lawn outside Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. Before the letter was published, signatories were asked discreetly to spread the word among like-minded colleagues, asking whether they would be willing to add their names to it. One replied that he had talked it over with his partner, who is of Jewish heritage. They both had reservations about the letter’s claim that Israel is committing genocide; he thought that thus far Israel’s actions were better described as ‘ethnic cleansing’, though he believes the risk of genocide is real. ‘But I don’t think,’ he finished, ‘it would be morally or politically proportionate for me to let that reservation stand in the way of expressing solidarity with a student action that I think is overwhelmingly justified.’ He signed the letter.


Amia Srinivasan is the Chichele Professor of Social and Political Theory at All Souls College, Oxford and a contributing editor at the LRB. Her first book, The Right to Sex: Feminism in the 21st Century, was published in 2021. The title essay was first published in the LRB as ‘Does anyone have the right to sex?’ She’s also written for the paper on subjects including free speech on campus, pronouns, octopuses, bestiality and sharks.

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