Harvard Task Force To Protect Anti-Israel Students Raises a Question: Where Is the Task Force Against Antisemitism?

The Supreme Court once protected the NAACP from being forced to disclose its members, but would it protect such a privacy claim by the kinds of student institutions that have sprouted at America’s oldest university?

M.J. Koch/The New York Sun
A truck doxxing anti-Israel students at Harvard. M.J. Koch/The New York Sun

Do the “doxxed” deserve to be defended? The nation’s oldest university seems to think so. Harvard will establish a task force to support students who have faced harassment for their alleged involvement with student groups that, a day after the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel, signed a statement blaming Israel for Hamas’s violence. 

In the weeks following the anti-Israel statement, individual students affiliated with it have been targeted on social media, websites, and billboards on campus and outside their homes, denouncing them as among “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”

Students, faculty, and staff are now uniting “to repel this repugnant assault on our community,” the dean of students, Thomas Dunne, wrote in a letter to doxxed students on Tuesday and obtained by the Harvard Crimson.

The backlash against pro-Palestinian sentiment raises questions about what, if any, protections should exist for students when their speech and behavior is deemed so deplorable that it damages their reputation — and even risks future employment. It is also raising concerns over why Harvard itself hasn’t created a similar task force against antisemitism. 

According to the Crimson, the anti-doxxing task force pledges to “communicate proactively with students to share available resources, ensure the coordination of services, hear student concerns and suggestions, and communicate with residential staff.” Mr. Dunne adds that the career services department is “reaching out to employers independently to vouch for students and to discredit the doxxed profiles.”

The initiative is launching after more than 70 Harvard academics signed an open letter last week demanding that the university president, Claudine Gay, condemn harassment of students of color and “other supporters of Palestinian liberation at Harvard.” Many of these students’ names and photographs have been blasted across the news media, while university benefactors, business titans, and national lawmakers have called to cut ties with the school.

Is this “doxxing” infringing upon students’ freedom and privacy rights, as the Harvard task force seems to imply? To dox, Merriam-Webster says, is “to publicly identify or publish private information about (someone), especially as a form of punishment or revenge.”

Doxxers can be charged with stalking, harassment, identity theft, or incitement to violence. The state of Kentucky even passed an anti-doxxing law in 2021. So did Hong Kong last year, after its democracy was crippled by Communist China.

The behavior could run afoul of the principle of the right to privacy, as outlined by an American lawyer, Samuel D. Warren, and a Supreme Court justice, Louis D. Brandeis, in a 1980 law review article. When an individual’s privacy is invaded, it tends “to injure him in his intercourse with others” and interfere with “his estimate of himself.” The American legal system should, they argued, protect citizens “from an intentional and unwarranted violation of the ‘honor’ of another.”

The “honor” of Harvard students, it could be argued, is at stake amid the fallout of the anti-Israel demonstrations on campus. The right to privacy, though, does not apply to signatories of a petition or members of a club, as that information is and should be publicly available, argues a professor emeritus at Harvard Law School, Alan Dershowitz.

“It is not doxxing to simply publish the names of students who voluntarily signed bigoted statements,” Mr. Dershowitz tells the Sun. “Harvard should treat these students like adults and not coddle them.” On the question of privacy, he asserts: “We’re not talking about a club of people who want to keep secrets. We’re talking about a club that makes public pronouncements that may cost lives.”

Arguments defending the right of students to protest against Israel, though, emphasize the benefits of freedom of expression and association. The 1958 Supreme Court case National Association for the Advancement of Colored People v. Alabama affirmed these rights, claiming that the “liberty” to participate in organizations committed to the “advancement of beliefs and ideas” is an inalienable right guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. 

Although the cancel culture on campuses today has limited legal precedent, that 1958 case provides some insight. In seeking to enjoin the NAACP from conducting business in the state, Alabama issued a subpoena for the group’s membership lists. The court unanimously ruled that this request violated the due process clause of the 14th Amendment as it would likely interfere with the free association of NAACP members. 

On Harvard’s campus today, though, Mr. Dershowitz argues that student groups must disclose their members’ names as a principle of the First Amendment. Universities exist to foster marketplaces of ideas, he says, which means both the doxxed and the doxxers must prepare to stand by their statements. 

“I will publicly disclose the name of any person that I can find out signed the statement blaming these massacres on Israel,” Mr. Dershowitz says, “and urge potential employers to ask themselves whether they want racists and bigots to be representing their clients.” Business titans like Bill Ackman, who have threatened to not hire such students, would certainly appreciate this plea. 

As anti-Israel sentiment rises at universities across the nation, Harvard’s pledge to protect its students appears to be selective. “I’m alarmed at the lack of a task force on antisemitism,” a Harvard student, Alex Bernat, who serves on the board of a center for Jewish life on campus, Harvard Chabad, tells the Sun.

Attempts by students “to either dismiss, redefine, or perpetuate antisemitism, using this conflict as cover, demonstrate a clear need for Harvard to establish a parallel task force on addressing deep-rooted lack of care or lack of education amongst the community here,” Mr. Bernat says, “not to mention Harvard’s institutional history of antisemitism and anti-Jewish discrimination.”

The president of a watchdog group, AccuracyInMedia, which put up the truck-mounted billboards on campus, expressed outrage over the creation of a task force to support the very students he has sought to expose. “It’s morally outrageous,” Adam Guillette tells the Sun, “that antisemitism is out of control at Harvard.”

The New York Sun

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