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Amid rising concerns over free speech, Rutgers president addresses student body

Student-raised concerns answered by President Barchi at last Thursday’s Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) meeting included student rights protected under the First Amendment, anti-Semitism on campus and the academic freedom that protects professors. – Photo by Henry Fowler

On Thursday evening the Rutgers University Student Assembly (RUSA) invited University President Robert L. Barchi to speak with students, addressing a wide array of issues regarding academic freedom rights of faculty and the reported offshore investments by the University. 

Following his discussion of the University disruption policy and his confirmation that the swastika spray-painted on the wall of Stonier Hall in late October was a protected action under the First Amendment, Barchi spoke about the process the University takes when an incident regarding free speech arises. 

The Daily Targum reported on the incident earlier this semester. 

The determination of whether an action or statement is considered free speech is not made by the University, Barchi said. 

Regarding instances that concern the limitations of free speech on campus the University seeks an outside constitutional opinion before taking action. 

Barchi said that when responding to a questionable drawing or flyer on campus, “The very first thing that we do is we take a picture of that and in 15 minutes send it to the state attorney for a decision about whether it's hate speech or not." 

The University then removes the disputed item because of its posting guidelines, which dictates where and how flyers can be hung. 

Barchi encouraged students in the audience to develop a comprehensive understanding of what the First Amendment says, what it does and does not protect and how it relates to public versus private universities. 

Using his earlier discussion regarding First Amendment protections as a segue, Barchi then defended three University faculty members who have been in the press in the last few weeks surrounding issues of free speech.

He said the one commonality between the three different cases was that they were all brought forward by “The Algemeiner,” a Jewish blog based in Brooklyn that succeeded a Yiddish language newspaper by the same name. 

Barchi began with Michael Chikindas, a professor in the Department of Food Science, to whom a Facebook feed displaying cartoons and crude jokes about Israel, Judaism, women and homosexuality was attributed last month. 

Regarding the posts, Barchi said there were "a whole lot of things which most of us would find repugnant," but also included that they are covered by his First Amendment right to free speech. 

“That’s a problem. You may not like what the guy says, but you have to like the fact that he can say it,” he said. “We always say that. 'I hate what you're saying, I disagree with everything you’re saying, but I’m gonna die protecting your right to say it.'” 

Since there is nothing in Chikindas’s posted material or statements that is “actionable,” Barchi said that the question the University needs to answer is whether his actions create an environment in his work that would compromise his ability to teach or to do research. 

Barchi said this becomes an issue of employment and of academic freedom. There is an ongoing independent investigation which is expected to conclude shortly upon which the University will make a decision about how to proceed. 

“But I can tell you that up until this point, his teaching record is actually very strong,” he said.  

A petition for the University to suspend Chikindas “pending further investigation” has garnered more than 5,300 signatures as of Sunday night. 

On the premise of academic freedom, Barchi also defended the recently published book of Jasbir Puar, a professor in the Department of Women's and Gender Studies entitled “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability.”

In the book, Puar explains how Israel brings Palestinians into “biopolitical being by designating them available for injury,” according to the Duke University Press website. 

“You may not like it, but it is protected by academic freedom, absolutely 100 percent," Barchi said.

The third faculty member mentioned was Mazen Adi, a professor in the Department of Political Science who has come under fire for his history as a diplomat under the Syrian government, which the University was well aware of at the time of his hire in 2015, Barchi said. 

“(Adi) is felt to be an excellent teacher,” Barchi said. “... He has not said or done anything in his academic life here that would be actionable.” 

As of Sunday night, the petition directed at Barchi to “fire Mazen Adi ... on grounds that as a Syrian diplomat and legal advisor he justified the war crimes of the genocidal Assad regime” was less than 300 signatures away from its goal of 5,000. 

On Nov. 13, Rutgers College Republicans and RU Democrats issued a joint statement condemning the University for hiring Adi, who according to the statement has “defended the Syrian government and a regime ... accused of massacring, torturing and starving its own people.”

The statement called on the University and Barchi to remove Adi, who has been flagged by UN Watch. Adi is scheduled to teach a course entitled International Criminal Law and Anti-Corruption during the Spring 2018 semester. 

“Those are the three cases, and once again, we are faced with a difficult challenge to thread the needle on free speech and academic freedom," Barchi said. "And as far as I'm concerned, those are the two fundamental cornerstones of an academic institution.” 

Barchi also addressed another story in the news about offshore investments, referencing a recent article in The New York Times which he said accused universities of investing money in the Cayman Islands and offshore locations to avoid taxation.  

According to the article, Rutgers was one of ten schools who invested in 2012 in a Cayman Islands partnership, Encap Energy Capital Fund IX-C, which is part of EnCap investments, “a private equity firm known for the acquisition and development of North American oil and gas properties.” 

“We’re not exactly a big fish in this market, but we do have money in those offshore locations," Barchi said. 

What is not true, he said, and could easily have been documented, is that the University does indeed pay taxes on money from those locations. 

Barchi said the University pays a roughly 35 percent federal income tax on the money there, “which is a hell of a lot more than corporations do who are working in that environment.”

Barchi urged students to seek out the backstories to these stories and to ask questions as they continue to play out. 

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