Student activists recently staged protests at Dartmouth University library, both to demonstrate against the vandalism of a Black Lives Matter display, and to show solidarity with similar initiatives held on various college campuses.
Activists verbally harassed onlookers, shouting racially charged epithets and expletive-laden slogans at students who were trying to study. And while Dartmouth administrators have dismissed reports of physical violence, there is no doubt that the tone of protests on college campuses has grown increasingly vitriolic. Two weeks ago, for example, protesters allegedly spat on attendees of an event at Yale held to highlight the importance of free speech.
One of the central demands repeated by protesters at campuses across the country has been for university administrators to transform campuses into "safe spaces," where students are protected not only from physical violence but also from ideas that they find threatening or offensive. However, the "safe spaces" envisioned by these protesters seem to matter only when the interests of those who share their political persuasions are affected.
There has been conspicuously little attention paid to incidents of anti-Semitism reported, for example, at Hunter College, where students supportive of Israel were chased away from a rally blaming high tuition fees on "Zionist administrators," and where protestors shouted "Zionists out of CUNY" (the City University of New York), by which they meant Jews.
At Vassar, Jewish students have repeatedly stated that they feel forced to self-censor pro-Israel views out of fear of retribution from peers and faculty alike. This year in a survey at Vassar, students responded that it was best not to advertise that you were Jewish on campus. At UC-Berkeley and the University of Texas, Jewish students have been frightened by shouts of "Long live the Intifada." The Intifada they were referencing involved the stabbing of Jews.
Where are the cries for safe spaces for Jewish students faced with such blatant intimidation?
Instead, "safe spaces" rhetoric has been used by students to insulate themselves from ideas that they deem offensive. Last spring at Columbia, the Multicultural Affairs Advisory Board objected to the inclusion of material by the Roman Poet Ovid on the ground that "like so many texts in the Western Canon, it contains triggering and offensive material that marginalizes student identities in the classroom." Last month, an event hosted by a student-group at Williams College called Uncomfortable Learning, was cancelled due to security concerns when protestors subjected organizers to severe online abuse.
Most recently, "safe spaces" activists demanded that a Yale residential hall administrator resign for daring to suggest that banning certain Halloween costumes might raise a freedom of speech issue, and that the university should not act as a heavy-handed censor.
At Smith, meanwhile, students successfully pushed administrators to ban reporters from covering a protest, unless they expressed support for the Black Lives Matters agenda.
The hypocrisy of protestors demanding protection from potentially offensive ideas while simultaneously insulting and harassing people who fail to demonstrate adequate levels of enthusiasm for their agenda should be obvious to all. But too few university administrators and faculty call out these hypocritical students for their double standard.
Let's be clear: All students should be made to feel physically safe on campus. They should also be protected from verbal abuse. Colleges should attempt to foster an inclusive and tolerant environment that allows individuals of varied backgrounds to feel comfortable discussing a wide range of intellectual, social and political topics.
As such, school administrators should condemn racist incidents, such as those that occurred at the University of Missouri. They should address allegations of anti-Semitic abuse at places like CUNY and Vassar with equal seriousness.
Students subjected to abuse or intimidation should be offered support services, and that may even entail setting aside "safe spaces" where they can find peace and quiet, access peer support groups and counseling services.
However, such safe spaces must not be extended to campuses as a whole. Classrooms in particular must not become intellectually sterile environments, where ideas are subjected to censorship based on the fact that they make some students feel uncomfortable. To the contrary, universities should foster discussions of controversial ideas, subversive ideas, ideas that provoke and challenge students to question their beliefs and preconceptions. That process is central to learning and intellectual progress more generally. Safe spaces rhetoric must not be allowed to undermine it.
Dershowitz is a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School and is author of "Abraham: The World's First (But Certainly Not Last) Jewish Lawyer"