Freedom of Expression in Complex Times Bar-Ilan University
Bar-Ilan is a pluralistic university. Its students, faculty and employees hold opposing views and different ways of thinking, but live in a common space out of mutual respect
The last several weeks have been very difficult for all of us—faculty, administration, and students alike—and their impact will remain with us for a long time to come. We are all in a state of shock at the horrific atrocities committed by the Hamas terrorist organization in the South of Israel on October 7. Many of us at Bar-Ilan know, directly or indirectly, men, women, and children who have been murdered or kidnapped, and we mourn for them together with their families. We send our hopes and prayers for the healing of the injured in body and spirit.
We are still in a period of active warfare, in the throes of traumatic events, and emotions will likely run high until calm and stability are restored. This challenging period brings conflicts and tensions to the surface that may find expression in lecture halls, labs, libraries, encounters on campus, and social media. Harsh and unacceptable statements can harm the well-being and sense of security of students as well as members of the faculty and administration.
What is freedom of expression?
Freedom of expression is one of the core tenets of a democratic society, ensuring the right of individuals to freely express their views and opinions, particularly in the academic space. The principle of freedom of expression is especially important when it comes to statements that are
controversial, enraging, or even offensive. The underlying rationale of freedom of expression is that differences of opinion must be resolved through respectful dialogue, and not by the stifling of debate. Nonetheless, it is clear that freedom of expression has its limits. At this time, two specific limitations on freedom of expression are especially pertinent.
The first is the prohibition against incitement to racism, as defined in Israel’s Penal Law 5737-1977, namely:
persecution, humiliation, degradation, display of animosity, hostility or violence, or causing confrontation with any community or segment of the population due to their color, racial affiliation or national/ethnic origin.
The second is the limitation on expressing support for terrorism, set forth in article 24(a)(1) of the Counter-Terrorism Law 5776-2016, as follows:
One who commits an act of identification with a terrorist organization, including voicing expressions of praise, support or sympathy, waving a flag, displaying or publicizing an emblem, or displaying, playing or publicizing a slogan or anthem, in one of the following [situations], is liable to three years’ imprisonment:
(1) In public, with the intention of identifying with a terrorist organization
A similar provision prohibiting incitement to racism is stipulated in Bar-Ilan University’s student code of conduct, which defines a disciplinary offense as:
behavior that is incompatible with the honor of the university or one’s status as a student, whether carried out within or outside the university, resulting from or connected with one’s status as a student or with an activity on campus, whether directly or indirectly. For purposes of this clause, incitement to racism against BIU employees, teachers, or students, will be considered behavior that is incompatible with the honor of the university or one’s status as a student.
How should these provisions be applied to statements made during wartime?
Social media are a key source of information, in addition to fostering awareness and creating support groups and communities of identification; yet, they also expose users to false information and “psychological warfare.” In fact, the influence of social media is just as great as (if not greater than) the impact of statements made directly on campus. Consequently, the University sees social media posts as part of the university environment, in which freedom of expression must be preserved while safeguarding other protected interests and values.
The following are several guidelines for appropriate behavior on social media during wartime aimed at maintaining freedom of expression while upholding the values of Bar-Ilan University:
Use respectful language. As we all know, words can hurt. Make a point of using respectful language that avoids expressions of hatred, racism or profanity against entire communities and populations—both in your own posts and in your responses to others. Always bear in mind that any and every message you post impacts others.
Do not spread false information. Many items of “fake news” are currently being circulated, with the intent of deepening the rifts in Israeli society and, worse still, encouraging vengeance and the harming of innocents. Fake news generates disinformation, which can pave the way to violent or inappropriate actions. Before disseminating any information, check carefully that it is based on reliable sources.
Do not post unlawful messages. The sharing of videos that help the war effort, or reports on the fighting, is permissible and even desirable within the bounds of free expression, provided you ensure that these contain no racist or violent statements or incitement.
Pay attention to symbols and visual language. Expressing political opinions on social media today often involves the use of symbols, emojis, and other visual tools. Look closely at the symbols in your posts, and make sure that your message does not violate the law and/or University policy.
Distinguish between legitimate freedom of expression and support for a terrorist organization or incitement. It is acceptable, for example, to express sadness at the death of innocents, but it is not permitted to support Hamas, Islamic Jihad or any other terrorist organization that seeks the destruction of the State of Israel, which is prohibited by law.
Engage in constructive discourse. Social media are a space for dialogue, debate, and the sharing of opinions. Make a point of engaging in respectful discourse, even if you find the other person’s views intolerable. Refrain from generalizations and one-sided statements that do not open the door to dialogue or help resolve differences.
Avoid bullying, shaming or labeling. Many students may be subjected to bullying, shaming or labeling simply for belonging to a certain group, especially when the person sending the message does not exercise good judgment. Posts of this kind, targeting specific individuals, are a blow to their self-respect, and can expose them to violence and threats of various kinds directed against them personally. Note that personal attacks can lead to the offended student taking legal action, including filing a libel suit.
In closing, we have no control over what took place, but all of us together can control what happens on our campus in the future. We therefore request that the entire university community maintain as calm an atmosphere as possible, and be considerate and fair in our encounters with one another. You are all an integral part of our campus, and it is our common
goal to continue learning together in a shared space where all students can feel that they belong, that they are equal, and, most importantly, that they are safe.
Prof. Arie Zaban, President
Prof. Amnon Albeck, Rector
Zohar Yinon, Chief Executive officer
Prof. Orna Sasson-Levy, Diversity and Gender Equity Commissioner