Professor’s discipline highlights social media dangers for workers

By Evan Goodenow -

Does an employer have the right to discipline an employee for anti-Israel posts social media posts done outside the workplace and unrelated to the job?

The punishment of Oberlin College assistant professor Joy Karega has raised that question locally as social media proliferates and criticism of Israel increases. The college on Aug. 3 announced Karega had been placed on paid leave for anti-Israel Facebook posts done in February that college officials deemed anti-Semitic.

The answer to the question, in Karega’s case, is yes. Greg Daniels, American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio chief lobbyist, said because the college is private, Karega — who posts included accusations that Israel was behind the 9/11 attacks — isn’t afforded the First Amendment, free speech protections she’d have at a public college or university. Nonetheless, Daniels said that just because the college can punish Karega doesn’t make it right.

Daniels said it’s unfair that employers are increasingly punishing their employees for what they say on social media outside the workplace and hypocritical for the college to do it given it’s stated commitment to academic freedom.

“It’s supposed to be an environment where there’s an open exchange of ideas, where people debate all kinds of subjects, even controversial, unpopular ones,” Daniels said. “That’s part of the college experience — to have all of these ideas whether they’re good or bad or right or wrong.”

Daniels also said the punishment sets a bad precedent that could chill speech.

“Where does it stop? Who decides what’s popular, what’s unpopular, what’s too controversial, what’s not controversial?” he asked. “Are they going to start looking at all the staff’s social media? Is this going to extend to students?”

Daniels said the Karega discipline is part of an increase in punishment for criticizing Israel both on and off college campuses. Much is connected to the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement.

Modeled after the anti-apartheid divestment movement in the 1980s that helped topple the pro-apartheid South African government, BDS accuses Israel of war crimes against Palestinians and of occupying and colonizing the Gaza Strip and West Bank. The movement has gained popularity on campuses including Oberlin College where group members have unsuccessfully tried to get the board of trustees to support divestment.

The movement surged in the wake of Israeli settlement expansion in the occupied territories and accusations of collective punishment and disproportionate force by Israel against Palestinians in recent years. On Aug. 4, Israel passed a law allowing children as young as 12 who are suspected of terrorism to be jailed in response to a wave of stabbings of Israelis by Palestinians.

Human Rights Watch last year accused Israel of war crimes during the 2014 Israeli offensive known as Operation Protective Edge in Gaza, which Israel said was in response to Palestinian rocket attacks. The United Nations said at least 2,100 Palestinians, including 1,500 civilians, were killed as well as 71 Israelis, including five civilians.

While campus criticism of Israel has increased, there has been a backlash nationally and in Oberlin. In 2014, the University of Illinois rescinded the hiring of professor Steven Salaita for a series of anti-Israel tweets he made in response to images of dead Palestinian children killed in Operation Protective Edge.

“If it’s ‘antisemitic’ to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have?” he asked in one tweet.

In November, the university settled a lawsuit with Salaita for $875,000, according to the Chicago Tribune.

The group Palestinian Legal, which advocates for Palestinian rights, said it responded to 112 campus disputes last year over anti-Israel criticism including at the University of Toledo. The Toledo Blade reported the student government restricted access by pro-divestment students to a meeting where a divestment proposal was defeated.

In January, about 300 Oberlin College alumni and several current and past faculty signed a letter to college president Marvin Krislov and the board of trustees praising a French court for labeling BDS a form of antisemitism and hate speech. The letter accused BDS supporters of “inflammatory language” that intimidated pro-Israel Jewish students.

“We believe that pro-B.D.S. individuals at Oberlin are exploiting the concept of free speech by promoting hate speech and by inciting acts of antisemitism,” the letter said. It asked for formation of a task force to deal with the complaint.

Politicians are also attacking BDS. In March, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton accused BDS supporters of bullying Jewish students on campus. “Many of its proponents have demonized Israeli scientists and intellectuals, even students,” she said in a speech to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

In June, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered state agencies to divest themselves from any organizations supporting boycotting and divesting from Israel. A similar bill is pending in the Ohio legislature.

House Bill 476 forbids state agencies from doing business with companies that boycott or divest from Israel “as an expression of protest against the policies of Israel.” Daniels said the ACLU opposes the bill because it is overly broad.

Evan Goodenow can be reached at 440-775-1611 or @GoodenowNews on Twitter.

By Evan Goodenow