Antisemitism Task Force Co-Chair David Schizer Discusses His Work

The conversation focused on the task force’s first report and the experiences of Jews and Israelis at Columbia.

April 02, 2024

Late last month, Columbia Professor David Schizer sat down with journalist and Columbia College alumna Jen Maxfield Ostfeld for a conversation titled, “How Columbia is Ensuring Its Campus is Safe and Inclusive,” as part of the AlumniTalk series hosted by the Columbia College Alumni Association.

Schizer is Harvey R. Miller Professor of Law and Economics and Dean Emeritus of Columbia Law School and co-chair of Columbia’s Task Force on Antisemitism, alongside Ester R. Fuchs and Nicholas Lemann.

The online discussion focused on the Task Force on Antisemitism’s first set of recommendations, which came out in early March and covered Columbia’s rules on protests and demonstrations. Additional reports are forthcoming that will document and analyze the discrimination and bias reported by many Jewish and Israeli members of the Columbia community. These reports will recommend a range of responses to sensitize and educate the entire community and to promote a more inclusive atmosphere.

The Experience of Jewish Students

“We have heard some things that are really heartbreaking,” he said. He mentioned a Jewish law student who shared the experience of attending a pro-Palestinian rally and being spit upon. “There's a way in which communal bonds are fraying, and in which students no longer feel comfortable in settings where they used to,” he added.

Free Speech Rights, Responsibilities, and Title VI

The first report from the task force focused on Columbia’s rules on demonstrations, which have loomed large for Jewish and Israeli students in recent months.

Schizer emphasized three basic principles that universities should apply in regulating protests. “The first is freedom of speech,” he said. The second concerns “free speech responsibilities.” “At a university, yes, I can protest,” he explained. “But it would be a real problem if I showed up either inside or outside the class that you teach and made it impossible for the students in your class to hear you. Because after all, they have their own free speech rights.”

Two people talking during a virtual webinar.

The third principle “is antidiscrimination. We're committed to the idea that we're a campus that is open and inclusive and welcoming for everyone.” he said. “And not only is that a matter of values, but it's also a matter of law, because the University is subject to federal law, Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act], and also to New York law as well,” he explained.

A 'Speaker’s Corner'

To safeguard everyone’s right to protest, while preventing disruptions of academic activities, the task force supports a “speaker’s corner” approach that permits protests in designated areas, but not “in academic buildings, because that can get in the way of classroom activity.”

Schizer added that since this is the approach of the new Interim University Policy for Safe Demonstrations announced last month, the task force strongly endorses it.

Disciplinary Actions

In response to those who question whether the rules are being enforced and whether individuals are being appropriately disciplined, Schizer explained that “there's a lot happening. And so, it's important that the whole community should know that,” he said. “As long as it's aggregated and not about individual cases, I think there won't be an issue under the law.”

After this conversation but before the publication of this article, the University began releasing this information.

Discrimination and Consistency

Schizer emphasized that Title VI requires the University to prohibit all forms of “discriminatory harassment," including “ethnic slurs,” “stereotyping,” and “calls for violence or murder, genocide, rape, enslavement.”  In applying these rules, “we have to use the same approach for all protected classes,” Schizer explained, because “we can’t have different standards for different protected classes. We can't do that.”

Defining Antisemitism

Asked why the task force has not defined antisemitism, Schizer said that definitions of antisemitism may be relevant to "other parts of our work," but “this is a report on rules,” including the University's legal obligation to ban discrimination. Under Title VI, “the relevant concept is not antisemitism, it is discriminatory harassment.” We can't have one definition of "discriminatory harassment" for Jews and Israelis, and another for other protected classes. Otherwise, our policy might treat protected classes differently.

Battling All Forms of Hate

When asked about the harassment that Palestinian-American and Arab-American students face, Schizer said that the analyses and recommendations produced by the task force will help the University combat multiple forms of hate.

He explained, “What we were trying to do was to answer the broader question, how do we guarantee free speech, while at the same time protecting everyone's rights to speak, teach, and learn and also preventing discrimination?” “That topic is much broader than antisemitism. And my hope is that we've managed to offer guidance that applies across the board.”