- “Why do we have free speech? We have free speech in order to be able to get to truth. The purpose of it was not so we could just stand there and scream in each other’s faces. It’s so we could get to truth, to get to progress, to advance everyone and everything.” - Bari Weiss, journalist
This week, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protested UNC hosting journalist Bari Weiss as part of UNC’s Program for Public Discourse.
Weiss is the founder and editor of The Free Press and host of the podcast Honestly. From 2017 to 2020 Weiss was an opinion writer and editor at The New York Times. Before that, she was an op-ed and book review editor at The Wall Street Journal and a senior editor at Tablet Magazine.
Before the Monday night event, the area surrounding UNC’s Frank Porter Graham Student Union traffic was almost at a standstill due to UNC’s men’s basketball team having a home game against Wake Forest University. However, this did not impact the turnout as the 300-plus person auditorium was full when Weiss took the stage.
Around 25 minutes into the talk, protestors in the back-right section of the auditorium stood up and displayed Palestinian flags while yelling towards the stage. Between the hands of two protestors was a poster of a tweet by Refaat Alareer that says, “If I get killed by Israeli bombs or my family is harmed, I blame Bari Weiss and her likes.”
The protesters began yelling towards the stage after Weiss said, “I think it is possible to believe that the Netanyahu government is terrible and shouldn’t be in power anymore. To believe that Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians over the past decades has been too, has been, you know, oppressive.”
A UNC administrator took the podium during the protest and said, “The Campus Free Speech Act passed by the General Assembly in July 2017 requires the university to protect the rights of speakers to be heard and attendees to hear and see the event. You are not allowed to disrupt this event. You will need to leave. You will need to leave now.”
In response to the pro-Palestinian protesters, many Jewish members of the audience began singing songs together in response. The response was led by a man waving the Israeli flag in the center of the auditorium.
After the protesters were ushered out of the auditorium by the police, Weiss said, “Was it something that I said?” to which the audience laughed. “Anyone that is interested in freeing Palestine, should be interested in the question of Hamas, how Hamas has come to power, how a terrorist group has been allowed to thrive,” Weiss continued.
Frank Bruni, Duke University professor and renowned columnist, and Weiss continued their talk touching on subjects like social media performative activism, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies, and why free speech is important in society.
“I think there is a fundamental difference between supporting the lives of innocent Palestinians and glorifying and supporting a terrorist organization,” Weiss said during the Q&A session. “It was hard for me to understand what exactly those students were supporting and if they were here, we could talk. I don’t think there is anything wrong with supporting innocent Palestinians. I consider myself pro-Palestinian in the sense that I want people that live in Gaza and the West Bank to live freely and enjoy the rights that I, as a gay and Jewish woman, get to enjoy in this country. I think the world would be far better off if that were the case.”
Before the event, the event organizers announced, “We expect large crowds for this event. We will begin handing out tickets to people in line at 5:45 at the Union Box Office. Doors open at 6:30. You can no longer reserve seats via email.” UNC SJP perceived this announcement as the organizers’ attempt to prevent their protest. They urged the protest participants to arrive at UNC’s student union at 5:30 PM to receive free tickets.
UNC SJP created a Google form for participants to fill out to commit to being at the protest. In the Google form they say, “They’ve invited Bari Weiss to speak about objectivity in journalism. Bari Weiss hates objectivity like someone hit her with it.”
In the Google form they cite a few of Weiss’s articles (End DEI, The Roots of Campus Hatred, Is Campus Rage Fueled by Middle Eastern Money?, and The Hatred on Our Doorsteps) and her speech at the Federalist Society’s Barbara K. Olson Memorial lecture.
UNC SJP has hosted statement writing workshops, town council presentations, sit-ins at UNC buildings, and marches on the UNC campus before the walk out on January 22.
Weiss is known for her public resignation from the New York Times which is displayed on her website.
“Twitter is not on the masthead of The New York Times. But Twitter has become its ultimate editor,” she wrote in her resignation letter. “As the ethics and mores of that platform have become those of the paper, the paper itself has increasingly become a kind of performance space. Stories are chosen and told in a way to satisfy the narrowest of audiences, rather than to allow a curious public to read about the world and then draw their own conclusions. I was always taught that journalists were charged with writing the first rough draft of history. Now, history itself is one more ephemeral thing molded to fit the needs of a predetermined narrative.”