By WILL ANDERSON News & Features Editor
Several student groups have been circulating an online petition protesting the inclusion of controversial lawyer, constitutional expert and Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz as a speaker in the Milton S. Eisenhower (MSE) Symposium. He is scheduled to speak Nov. 10 in Shriver Hall.
The petition’s sponsors are the Hopkins Feminists, the Sexual Assault Resource Unit (SARU), the Diverse Sexuality and Gender Alliance (DSAGA), Voice for Choice and the Black Student Union (BSU).
Hopkins Feminists spearheaded the petition.
In the letter, the groups cite Dershowitz’s alleged trivialization of sexual assault, his past defense in court of a convicted child molester, plagiarism of his book and making ad hominem attacks on those who have criticized him in the past.
Dershowitz is best known for his success as a criminal defense lawyer who worked on the O.J. Simpson murder case and won 13 out of the 15 murder and attempted murder cases he has worked on.
The Chairs of MSE, Nicole Michelson, Ariel Zahler, Jeremey Fraenkel and Nadeem Bandealy, answered questions about Dershowitz and the petition in an email to The News-Letter.
“We invited Alan Dershowitz to come to the Hopkins campus to enrich the dialogue on the Middle East and civil liberties, as an acclaimed Felix Frankfurter professor at Harvard Law School and prominent scholar on constitutional law,” they wrote.
The authors of the petition cite many examples of his alleged trivialization of sexual assault. These include attacking his detractors on social media in an effort to discredit them, employing private investigators to follow and discredit his and his clients’ accusers and negotiating a plea deal for convicted child molester and financier Jeffrey Epstein that gave immunity to those, allegedly including Dershowitz, who could have been implicated in the scandal in the future.
Dershowitz’s private investigators allegedly intimidated Epstein’s victim and printed sections of her MySpace page that were associated with marijuana to discredit her allegation.
Dershowitz was also accused of having sex with an underage girl who was held captive as a “sex slave” by Epstein in 2001. He has continuously denied the allegations.
“She is categorically lying and making the whole thing up,” Dershowitz has said.
Several members of Epstein’s staff testified that Dershowitz was staying in Epstein’s house when Epstein was sexually assaulting underage girls.
MSE said that it was neither their nor the students’ role to judge whether Dershowitz is guilty or not.
“The Symposium is certainly sensitive to allegations of this nature and is deeply disturbed by any form of sexual assault. That being said, it is neither ours nor the protesters' role to validate the truth or falsity of these allegations; It is the role of the adjudicator of the lawsuit and the United States justice system. Judge Kenneth Mara struck the allegations from the record and Dershowitz has been proven innocent,” they wrote. “The language of the petition suggests otherwise, and that is absolutely false. Two other points are noteworthy: Dershowitz consistently denied the allegations and even declared his willingness to waive the statute of limitations, inviting the accuser to file criminal charges against him, certain of his own innocence.”
According to the petition, Dershowitz plagiarized large sections of The Case for Israel from a 1984 book by Joan Peters, From Time Immemorial. The Case for Israel attempts to respond to common criticisms of Israel. Members of the international relations and free speech communities have criticized Dershowitz’s citation in the book, and two studies concluded that parts of his book were lifted from Peters’, although a Harvard study did back Dershowitz.
MSE denied the allegations that Dershowitz plagiarized sections of The Case for Israel.
“The sources corroborating the accusation that Professor Dershowitz plagiarized portions of The Case for Israel were Norman Finkelstein and Noam Chomsky, both of whom are outspoken critics of this New York Times Bestseller. The Symposium supports neither Dershowitz, nor Finkelstein, nor Chomsky, but rather, seeks to inform the student body that these allegations against Dershowitz were made by two men with vested interests in discrediting Dershowitz,” they wrote.
“Unfortunately, the circulating petition uses vague and strong language, such as ‘corroborated by multiple independent parties,’ that leaves the reader with a substantially different message. Ultimately, a thorough investigation was conducted by Dr. Derek Bok, former President of Harvard University, and all allegations were proven to be false. Since then, any charges of plagiarism have been removed from Finkelstein’s book, Beyond Chutzpah.”
The authors of the petition stress that they are not restricting free speech on campus but instead think that academic integrity and supporting victims of sexual assault should be the University’s top priority.
“Although the University supports free speech, and the premise of the MSE Symposium is to create dialogue over controversial issues, sexual assault and academic integrity are not issues that are open to debate of any kind,” the petition states. “As a University, we cannot support a person who has trivialized sexual assault and demonstrated a lack of academic integrity.”
President of the Black Student Union Matthew Brown, one of the petition’s sponsors, explained why the BSU co-sponsored the petition, citing Dershowitz’s past comments on sexual assault as a motivating factor.
“It wasn’t just one comment, it was a history of slut-shaming and victim blaming during police investigations of victims, as well as some allegations that he was involved in some sexual crimes,” Brown said. “After looking at that and seeing that it wasn’t a one time incident, but was a long-term pattern, we [the BSU] were concerned that we were going to bring someone like that to campus.”
Brown does not think Dershowitz reflects the values the University should represent and therefore does not reflect what students believe either.
“I think it’s reflecting poorly. As a speaker, if we were not looking at that part, he would be a very interesting person to look at because there are a lot of controversial figures that Hopkins has brought to the school, but there’s a difference between being controversial and being offensive,” Brown said. “His stance on Israel is something you could talk about, but in regards to victim blaming and rape, that’s an issue, especially with the issues that the school’s been having recently with sexual assault and sexual violence.”
MSE, on the other hand, disagreed, saying that considering multiple viewpoints is essential for free speech.
“The core values of the Johns Hopkins University include diversity and inclusion. We believe that Professor Dershowitz offers a unique perspective on the Middle East and on civil liberties. In order to be holistically educated on any given topic, one should hear all sides of a debate, regardless of whether he/she agrees with the presented viewpoint,” they wrote. “We have made it our mission this year to include individuals in our lineup whose opinions may not have been represented adequately in the past. In the words of [former University President] Daniel Gilman, ‘Our simple aim is to make scholars, strong, bright, useful, and true.’”
When asked if banning Dershowitz from speaking on campus was a violation of free speech, MSE wrote, “Absolutely.”
Brown said further action, including a boycott of MSE, could develop as the petition’s number of signatures increases.
“There are a lot of people who find sexual violence to be atrocious and comments about rape to be atrocious as well,” he said. “A lot of people are doing their own research now, they’re looking at the facts, and they're saying that this isn’t okay. If you search his a name and type in rape comments, sexual abuse comments, there are just a ton of links that come up.”
For Brown, free speech is vital for a free and functioning society and campus life, but speakers must be aware of the potential power of their words, especially when those who are survivors of sexual assault are involved in the discussion.
“I think there is a difference between free speech and hateful free speech. We have survivors on campus. We have people who have struggled with sexual abuse. There have been rape victims on this campus, and they are still here,” he said. “Knowing all that, bringing someone like this who is not going to empathize with [the victims], who’s going to say it’s their fault, who might even say something very hurtful to them is not right to the students... If [students] are concerned about this, then they have the right to express that concern and the University has to do something about it.”
MSE also commented on the necessity of free speech on campus.
“We encourage free speech. The students signing the petition are entitled to their opinions — we do ask, however, that in the effort of increasing awareness and broadening horizons that members of the student body conduct a thorough review of non-partisan, unbiased sources that lack ulterior motives for discrediting Dershowitz,” they wrote.
MSE said that a respectful alternate protest or dialogue during the event would be appropriate.
“MSE welcomes those who choose to engage with the event, whether that be in support of, in protest of, or somewhere in between. Free and open dialogue is at the core of the Symposium’s values,” they wrote.
Senior Ben Schwartz, the president of J Street U, the student branch of J Street, which advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestine conflict, said the Dershowitz controversy is good for the student body.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the students protesting Dershowitz, I think it's undoubtedly good for our campus that we are having a debate, that students are exercising their right to freedom of expression, and that students are organizing politically,” he wrote.
Dershowitz has criticized J Street’s positions before, denouncing the organization as “hard left” and against the interests of Israeli Jews. Schwartz disagreed.
“The many misleading and untrue statements Dershowitz has made about J Street, the political home for pro-Israel, pro-peace Americans, have no place in civil discourse on our campus,” Schwartz wrote. “Neither do his ad hominem attacks on progressive Zionists who care deeply about the future of the State of Israel as the democratic homeland of the Jewish people.”
Schwartz stressed the importance of respecting other people’s opinions.
“J Street U students believe in listening to people with whom we have disagreements, but we also believe in civility,” he wrote. “Dershowitz has much to prove on that count."
MSE does not endorse any of their speakers’ comments.
“As a forum for the free exchange of ideas, we host speakers ranging from Joe Lieberman to Newt Gingrich, clearly representing a variety of viewpoints and differing opinions,” they wrote. “The Symposium seeks to bring together a group of individuals at the top of their fields in order to educate the student body, independent of our own personal beliefs.”
According to MSE, Dershowitz will still speak on Nov. 10 in Shriver Hall.
Editor’s Note: Nadeem Bandealy, one of the chairs of MSE, is The News-Letter’s Director of Finance. As a member of the business team, he is never involved with editorial content.
Rachel Biderman, Managing Editor, is a member of MSE and was not involved in the writing or editing of this article.