When Professors Throw Rocks

Disagreements should be settled with words, not deadly weapons.

That’s a basic rule of civilized society, and it defines the parameters of the Free Marketplace of Ideas that highlights American civil discourse.  It is a rule that applies equally to plumbers, to auto mechanics, to locksmiths – and, as should go without saying, to members of the academic community, including college professors.  At least, that is what they taught me during my undergraduate days at Columbia University.

And thus we come to Professor Edward Said, apparently the holder of Columbia University’s coveted Hezbollah Chair in Rock Throwing.

Said, who was introduced to me briefly a quarter-century ago by former College Dean Peter Pouncey when I represented the undergraduate student body as their elected representative in the Columbia University Senate, proudly is boasting that he participated violently in a recent assault against Israelis along the southern border of Lebanon.  In a United Press International dispatch from the Mideast dated July 4, 2000, UPI reported that “Edward Said,  a U.S.-nationalized Palestinian writer, visited the Lebanese-Israeli border and threw stones at Israeli soldiers. . . . Tuesday’s As Safir newspaper published a front-page picture of Said as he was throwing stones at Israeli soldiers across the border fence at the Fatma Gate.”

        The Professor actually threw one or more manifestly dangerous projectiles at Israelis.

In the evolving universe of American First Amendment law, free speech can include certain symbolic or demonstrative acts, including wearing black armbands, Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community Sch. Dist., 393 U.S. 503 (1969); wearing clothes bearing a written political message couched in obscene language, Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971); dancing nude,Schad v. Borough of Mt. Ephraim, 452 U.S. 61 (1981); and extending further to defacing or even burning the American flag in protest.  See, e.g., Spence v. Washington, 418 U.S. 405 (1974) (defacing); United States v. Eichman, 496 U.S. 310, 317 (1990) (burning); Texas v. Johnson, 491 U.S. 397, 406-07 (1989) (same). 

Notwithstanding the broad reach of protected expressive speech, there is a limit.  Thus, draft-card burning can constitute protected expressive speech, yet be prohibited on grounds that it disrupts the administration of the selective-service process. United States v. O’Brien, 391 U.S. 367 (1968).  Nude dancing and the like, despite being protected as expressive speech, can be restricted for valid zoning considerations.  City of Renton v. Playtime Theatres, Inc., 475 U.S. 41 (1986).  And our society’s agreement to limit First Amendment freedoms at times extends further, even proscribing the articulation of mere words in certain contexts. Thus, it may be permitted to yell “movie!” in a crowded fire station, but we have been taught by Justice Holmes’s famous formulation that it can be forbidden to yell “fire!” in a crowded theater.  Schenck v. United States, 249 U.S. 47 (1919).  More pertinently, the First Amendment will not protect words inciting or producing (not merely advocating) – or likely to incite or produce — imminent lawless action.  Brabdenburg v. Ohio, 395 U.S. 444 (1969).

Which brings us back to Said, and not merely in terms of what Said said . There is no such thing as a “symbolic” stabbing or shooting.  And there is no such thing as a “symbolic” throwing of one or more rocks at Jews.  Bullets, knives — and rocks – can and do murder. For example, eight Israelis have been murdered, and thousands severely maimed, by rocks “symbolically” thrown at them by Arabs.  Indeed, the Israeli government recently lodged a formal complaint with the United Nations regarding the incessant rock-throwing that has erupted at that very site along Israel’s border with Lebanon since the Barak government withdrew the Israeli Defense Forces from South Lebanon in May.  The formal Israeli petition lists 43 documented incidents of rock-throwing from the Lebanese side of that border fence.  According to the documents filed with the U.N., a number of Israelis have been hurt by rocks hurled at them near the Fatma Gate, which is outside Metullah. Those rock attacks have made daily life for Israel’s northern residents intolerable, hampering their ability to tend their fields and orchards along the border.

Edward Said would face a lengthy prison term if he had thrown his rocks in the United States.  Earlier this month, a Florida man was sentenced to life in prison without parole for throwing a rock last year that killed a motorist, University of Alabama Professor Julie Laible.  And three young men who threw rocks at cars traveling on Washington, D.C.’s Capitol Beltway in 1990 were convicted of “assault with intent to maim” and “assault with intent to disable.” For their crimes, each received prison terms of 38 to 40 years.

Over the years, there have been tens of thousands of Arab rock-throwing attacks against Israelis, and thousands of those Israelis have been injured severely, in several cases permanently.

In at least eight such instances, Israelis – or  Arabs mistaken for Israelis – have died in such assaults: Esther Ohana, 20, murdered in 1983 when she was struck in the head by rocks thrown at the car in which she was a passenger; Benny Meisner, struck in the head and murdered by a chunk of concrete thrown at him in 1989 by an Arab in Nablus; Haim Sharabani, 38, murdered in 1989 when he died from wounds suffered when struck in the head during an Arab rock-throwing attack in Khan Yunis, Gaza, two weeks earlier.  A 4 year-old Arab boy, from the village of Kafr Talouza (north of Nablus), similarly murdered when he was struck in the head by a rock thrown in 1990 by Arab rock-throwers who mistook the car in which he was riding for an Israeli vehicle.

In 1993, an Israeli car traveling in the Gush Etzion region was attacked by Arab rock-throwers, and the driver lost control of the vehicle under the barrage, crashing and killing 11-year-old passenger, Chava Wechsberg.  In a similar incident that same year, rocks thrown at a car near Jerusalem’s A-Ram junction caused that car to crash, killing 17-year-old passenger Amitai Kapah.   Also in 1993, Yehoshua Weisbrod was stoned to death by an Arab mob in Rafah, in the Gaza Strip.  And Fathi Shouri, 43, an Arab mistaken for a Jew, was murdered when rocks thrown at his car hit him in the head near Ramallah in 1996.

Fortunately, Edward Said’s aim was not true enough to kill the Israeli at whom he threw his rock or rocks. Nevertheless, Said knows full well that a well-aimed rock can blind or even kill the person at whom it is thrown.

Columbia University should take appropriate disciplinary action against Said for participating in a documented act of violence.  This is not about “academic freedom”; it is about Brandenburg and the rules of civil discourse, civil behavior, and perhaps even civil rights in the Free Marketplace of Ideas.  If a Caucasian professor had thrown a rock at an African-American, Columbia surely would act.  A professor who deliberately throws a rock at a Jew no less deserves academia’s censure.