Free speech and academic freedom are prized values in American universities. However, there are times when these First Amendment principles are abused, often with disturbing results. Jewish students at Wayne’s William Paterson University are dealing with one of these situations right now, as they fight to remove a member of the faculty, Professor Clyde Magarelli, who assaulted them with anti-Semitic rhetoric and outlandish conspiracy theories in his sociology classroom. According to a statement from William Patterson President Kathleen Waldron, he is currently under temporary suspension while the university investigates. Jewish students have been circulating a petition pleading with the administration to remove him permanently.
Talia Mizikovsky, director of the Hillel of William Paterson and three other campuses in northern New Jersey, explained that this saga began a few semesters ago, when a student brought to her attention a series of racist and anti-Semitic comments made by Magarelli.
Mizikovsky encouraged the student to report these incidents to the university. The student, as well as Mizikovsky, both followed up on this issue. They received an email from the administration, claiming that the only problem was a misunderstanding and straying from the proper subject matter. As the email read, “I found that Professor Magarelli’s statements would likely be protected under the First Amendment and viewed as generating a healthy classroom discussion/debate. I did, however, find that Professor Magarelli (and consequently his students) would benefit from a discussion to determine whether he was improperly veering off the topic[s] of his Criminal Investigations syllabus/outline.” The student was not available for comment, Mizikovsky noted, because he or she had signed a confidentiality agreement with the university. Waldron’s statement provided to The Jewish Link made no mention of this student or to a confidentiality agreement, noting that their first complaint about Magarelli was made in context with the Spring 2018 term.
Recently, however, another student actually recorded Magarelli and released the incriminating videos on social media. This, Mizikovsky explained, was a game changer. “Part of the problem was when the initial student made the complaint...they [the administration] said in the email, she must have misunderstood the context; that Professor Magarelli was just agitating, you know, to stir intellectual debate. But when these new videos came out, it was clear that the context was nonexistent. That there was no way to contextualize appropriately that the moon landing is fake, or that the [Nazi] Gestapo wasn’t a terrorist organization, implying that it was nonviolent, or that Ashkenazi Jews have no ancestral link to Judaism.”
These are only some of the preposterous and offensive claims that Magarelli has made in his classroom. In the petition to have him removed, students detailed even more examples, including: “Stating in his class that Jews and the U.S. Air Force are responsible for 9/11,” “promoting Holocaust denial in his classroom, including minimizing the number of murdered Jews from six million to mere thousands,” and “[saying] that women should not serve in the military because they distract men from duty.” Toward the end of the petition, the students concluded that while they “proudly affirm the right to free speech for all students and faculty,” they also believe that “Professor Magarelli’s anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, as well as his espousal of misogynist ideas and crackpot history and science, cause [them] to doubt his academic integrity and his very competency as a professor.”
Mizikovsky also addressed the matter of free speech. “There’s a lot of protection of free speech and academic freedoms, which are very necessary. However, they sometimes enable hatred and falsehood to be taught in the classroom from an authority figure, which lend these statements credibility.”
“While the University endorses free speech and academic freedom it also abides by the understanding that academic freedom does not include the right to intentionally disseminate false information, ahistorical conclusions, or factual distortions, including those that allegedly belittle or discriminate against groups of people or defy accepted scientific concepts,” said Waldron in the statement.
Jason Shames, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, mentioned a similar point in a recent weekly Shabbat shalom letter, published in last week’s Jewish Link. The Federation noted it had recently dealt with three faculty members at Rutgers who were “cited for flagrant anti-Semitic speech,” and Shames was frustrated to hear that this behavior was cropping up again, this time at William Paterson. He wrote, “It is irresponsible and morally corrupt for the universities to allow this type of behavior under the guise of the First Amendment and academic freedom.”
The petition is an active way to stand up for these rights. “Our intention in creating this petition was to give voice to our community, to let our students speak out, and express their concern, and also to continue to hold the university accountable,” explained Mizikovsky. She added: “We are very happy and grateful for the first step of investigating Professor Magarelli and temporarily suspending him while they investigate him; however, we are not going to forget, and our attention remains on this ongoing issue, where we feel it is completely inappropriate for this professor to remain on the university faculty.”
In a video included with the online petition, Esther Sellin, a rising senior at William Paterson and the president of the campus’s Hillel, shared her perspective: “As a descendant of Holocaust survivors who was raised in a proud Jewish family, I find the comments made by Professor Magarelli truly appalling.” She spoke for her fellow students, adding, “In order to create an environment of inclusion where diversity is celebrated, all students must feel safe and welcome on campus.”
Those interested in joining this effort can find the petition online at https://www.change.org/p/president-kathleen-waldron-stand-against-anti-semitism-and-holocaust-denial-at-william-paterson-university
By Rachel Retter
Rachel Retter is a third-year intern and contributor to The Jewish Link. She is a rising sophomore at Stern College for Women.