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University of California Seeks Input for Rewrite of Free Speech Policy

LOS ANGELES ― The University of California Board of Regents is going back to the drawing board Monday and getting public input after a proposed policy on intolerance was roundly rejected by Jewish organizations that say it doesn’t go far enough to address antisemitism on campuses.

Dozens are expected to voice their opinions at a forum at the University of California, Los Angeles, which has become a focal point in the discussion of freedom of expression on campus after several high-profile incidents.

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 Nazi swastikas were spray painted onto a UC Davis Jewish fraternity house.

The UC’s governing board considered a policy rejecting intolerance and upholding academic freedom drafted by the president’s office at its meeting in September. Jewish groups contested it was too weak and needed to specifically address antisemitism.

“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 antisemitism on college campuses. “However, they also have an obligation to ensure safety and civil rights.”

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

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

“I do believe it is the most authoritative and well-respected definition of antisemitism 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 defined intolerance as “unwelcome conduct” motivated by discrimination or hatred toward a group or individuals. It 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.

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