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Temple trustees condemn controversial remarks by Marc Lamont Hill, but affirm his right to free speech

At their first public meeting since the uproar, Temple's trustees issued a "statement of condemnation" of Hill.

Temple University president Richard M. Englert addresses the Marc Lamont Hill situation during a Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.
Temple University president Richard M. Englert addresses the Marc Lamont Hill situation during a Board of Trustees meeting on Tuesday, Dec. 11, 2018.Read moreJOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer

Mirroring statements made in recent weeks by university leaders, Temple University’s board of trustees on Tuesday issued its own condemnation of professor Marc Lamont Hill over his controversial comments on Israel and the Palestinians, but stopped short of taking any action against him and defended his right to free speech.

In a four-paragraph statement released at the end of their first public meeting since the furor erupted late last month, the trustees expressed their “disappointment, displeasure, and disagreement with” Hill’s remarks, hewing closely to the initial reaction last month from university president Richard M. Englert.

But the trustees also said, "We recognize that Professor Hill’s comments are his own, that his speech as a private individual is entitled to the same constitutional protection of any other citizen, and that he has through subsequent statements expressly rejected anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence.”

The statement reflected the tightrope the school has walked since Hill, a 2000 Temple graduate who last year rejoined the faculty with an endowed chair in the Klein College of Media and Communications, delivered the speech during a Nov. 28 event at the United Nations marking International Day of Solidarity With the Palestinian People.

In those remarks, Hill said he supported “a free Palestine from the river to the sea.” Critics said the phrase echoed a refrain from the militant Palestinians and supporters who want to destroy or eliminate Israel. Hill’s comments drew swift and widespread outrage from groups including the Anti-Defamation League and National Council of Young Israel, and led CNN to drop him as a political commentator.

Hill has since apologized for his use of the phrase, saying that while it is controversial, the phrase has been used since at least the 1930s to describe different movements.

Still, some called on Temple to fire him — a difficult prospect given Hill’s status as a tenured professor. Others, including fellow Temple faculty members, defended him and criticized the university as not standing up for his right to free speech.

The board had not announced an intention to address the issue at Tuesday’s meeting and its agenda did not note any proposed action involving Hill. About 50 or 60 people attended the meeting, though it was unclear how many were drawn by the topic. There were no protests or public comments.

Shortly before the end of the nearly hour-long gathering, the university president said, “Today, I want to address a matter that has become national news.”

Englert then briefly recounted the controversy, concluding: “Based on a detailed analysis of the law; the advice of legal counsel and nationally renowned expertise outside the university; consultation with the provost and the dean of the Klein College, it is clear that Professor Hill’s appearance and his views were his own, and not as a representative of Temple University. He spoke as a private citizen, and his right to do so is protected by the Constitution.”

The four-page statement released by the board echoed Englert’s remarks, noting the phrase Hill used — “from the river to the sea” — has been used by anti-Israel terror groups and is “widely perceived as language that threatens the existence of the State of Israel.” But it also pledged that Temple would remain “open to a wide diversity of thought, opinion, and dialogue by people of all backgrounds.”

Temple’s board chairman, Patrick O’Connor, had previously called Hill’s remarks “lamentable” and “disgusting,” but neither he nor other trustees elaborated on the president’s remarks. Most left the meeting as it ended. Hill did not attend. Reached later by phone, he said he was aware of the trustees' action but unable to immediately comment on it.

Trustee Leonard Barrack, who had been among the first to call for the school to act against Hill, said the board’s condemnation did not go far enough. “I pushed for a much stronger statement,” said Barrack, a Philadelphia lawyer, who said he had been “outraged” and “hurt” by Hill’s comments.

“I was upset, and have been upset, because [the comments] were anti-Semitic, and because he is speaking as a representative of the university. He didn’t say to anyone before he started speaking at the U.N. that he wasn’t,” Barrack said. “The handbook says that he should have said, ‘I’m speaking on my personal behalf, and not on behalf of CNN or Temple University,’ but he didn’t say that.”

Adam Steinbaugh, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a nonprofit that works to protect the rights of educators and students, called the statement “a welcome return to form.”

“Temple had it right the first time when they announced that Hill’s comments were made as a private citizen and that he had First Amendment rights to do so,” Steinbaugh said in an interview after the meeting.

“Professors say things that can be controversial, as do students,” Steinbaugh said. “That is the role of a university, to explore ideas. Some of them may be controversial … or offensive to some, few, or many. So if you punish a professor for commenting on matters of public concern on the basis that those comments are offensive to others, then you risk casting a chilling effect on other professors who might say things that might offend many, or few, or everyone.”