San Francisco State University president Lynn Mahoney in her office. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)
San Francisco State University president Lynn Mahoney in her office. (Photo/Gabe Stutman)

S.F. State president on why hijacker’s invite is protected by academic freedom

An upcoming virtual event at San Francisco State featuring Palestinian militant Leila Khaled, who hijacked two planes in 1969 and 1970 as a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and who continues to express support for violent resistance against Israel and Zionists, has prompted debate about academic freedom and brought national attention to the university and its reputation as a hotbed of anti-Israel activity.

The roundtable discussion on Sept. 23, “Whose Narratives? Gender, Justice and Resistance,” is being hosted by the university’s Arab and Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas Studies program. It’s being moderated by the program’s senior scholar, associate professor Rabab Abdulhadi, an outspoken critic of Israel who was named as a defendant in a 2018 lawsuit filed by two Jewish students alleging systemic antisemitism at San Francisco State. (The case was settled.)

After Jewish groups denounced Khaled’s invitation to speak, S.F. State President Lynn Mahoney released a statement on Sept. 5 defending academic freedom and condemning terrorism. She also wrote an op-ed for J., published on Sept. 14. J. spoke with Mahoney on Sept. 15. This interview has been edited and condensed.

J.: In your campus-wide communication, you expressed support for academic freedom and opposition to censorship in the teaching environment. You also condemned the use of terrorism and violence against civilians. What did you mean when you said these two positions are not mutually exclusive?

Lynn Mahoney: I’m a U.S. historian, and I have studied too much U.S. history to not see the consequences of censorship. In addition, if you censor when it is illegal to censor, you give some people’s words more power than others. I’m a big believer [that] you can both be critical of the content and remembering that when a faculty member invites someone to a class or assigns a text in a class, that doesn’t reflect the university, it reflects what that faculty member is trying to accomplish in that one class or that one event. I strongly believe that you counter it with critiques of violence and critiques of terrorism. You counter it with more speech. You counter it with more events. And that’s why I don’t think they need to be mutually antithetical.

But don’t faculty members who invite a problematic speaker to San Francisco State confer legitimacy on that person’s views?

I would hope that people would develop a slightly more nuanced understanding of what universities do. If universities cannot be a place where a range of ideas — some of those ideas some people will find abhorrent — are out there and allowed by academic freedom and the freedom of expression, it can’t happen anywhere. And once you open the door to that, then what’s the next thing that people won’t allow? Will they not allow research in another particular area?

You know that old childhood [saying] sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never hurt you? That was wrong. Words can wound. And in this case, the ability of faculty to exercise their right to academic freedom in a class is deeply wounding to our Jewish students, particularly our Jewish students for whom Zionism is an important part of their identity. So I have an equal obligation to make sure that they are safe and allowed to then exercise their right to academic freedom and freedom of expression. None of this is easy, but it’s really important in a university setting.

What diverse perspective would you say Leila Khaled brings to students?

Each individual speaker, each individual class, each individual event may not, in and of itself, present a diversity of opinions or viewpoints. Students take a minimum of 40 classes to graduate. They also go to dozens of events, and they read hundreds of books. I know that in the past our university has taken criticism for being perceived, at least of not allowing, for example, Hillel to participate fully. My job as a university president is to make sure that when [Jewish students] want to have their events and have their speakers and have their classes, [I] protect them as well. So you have to think of this not as one speaker, one class, one event, one day in the university’s history, but how does the student experience this over four to six years?

But about Khaled specifically? What valuable perspective does she bring to S.F. State?

I don’t censor my faculty’s classes. I don’t know what the student learning outcomes are in this class. I don’t know what the student learning outcomes are for this event. But again, I don’t quiz a faculty member who’s assigning a text in class. So no, I don’t know. You would have to interview the two faculty members involved.

The group Khaled represents, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, is considered a terrorist organization by the State Department and the European Union. Other groups on the State Department list include al-Qaeda, Boko Haram and the Islamic State. In your position as university president, would you defend the academic freedom of a professor who wanted to invite a speaker from one of those organizations?

For in-person speakers, we do a threat assessment. That would involve university police and others. This is a legal line, I think the legal language is “imminent danger.” So in-person has one set of criteria and obviously remote has another. I don’t defend the speaker. I want to make that very, very clear, whether it’s in this instance or others. I am defending [and] I am supporting the right of my faculty to conduct their classes without censorship. Knowing full well, as I say, that their right to do this is deeply woundful and traumatic to my Jewish students.

Leila Khaled speaking in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2009. (Photo/Flickr-Sebastian Baryli CC BY 2.0)
Leila Khaled speaking in Beirut, Lebanon, in 2009. (Photo/Flickr-Sebastian Baryli CC BY 2.0)

Would you defend a speaker invited from one of those organizations to address an S.F. State class virtually?

I don’t want to speak to each of those because I haven’t reviewed each of them or the list you’re talking about, but I have to defend the right of my faculty to invite people to class virtually. It’s the same with a text. I know that on my campus, I’m assuming that “Mein Kampf” is assigned or other texts that people would consider endorsing violence or terrorism.

But isn’t there a difference between assigning a text like “Mein Kampf,” where it’s assumed the professor will speak to why the arguments are morally wrong, and Khaled being invited by someone like Rabab Abdulhadi, who probably will not challenge her views?

I view a student’s experience in its totality. Across more than 40 courses and many other academic and social experiences, students develop the critical thinking skills to weigh material for themselves, to come to conclusions other than the one presented by a text, by a speaker or by one faculty member. Not every experience will be nuanced or reflect a diversity of views. My job is to ensure that, as a university, all viewpoints share the same right to expression so that students can develop the skills to assess material critically. But I am always mindful of the hurt that words, texts and speaker[s] can inflict, so as a university we must be responsive to that as well.

What other lines would a speaker have to cross, other than a legal one, to be condemned by the university? Does ideology come into play at all?

Within the legal definition of a public university, I am held to a much higher legal standard than colleagues who are at private universities. And I have to be driven by the law. There’s a legal standard for this and there’s a process for review. And I don’t make these decisions by myself. I consult with attorneys. I consult with university police. I do not believe just on ideology alone that the U.S. Constitution allows the exclusion of freedom of expression, as abhorrent as some might find the ideology expressed.

What would be an instance where you might condemn but not censor a speaker who is invited to the university by faculty?

In general, what I look at is the content. So we’ll see quite clearly in the message I sent out to campus that I very strongly condemned the use of violence and terrorism. And also, as strongly, condemned anti-Semitism, Islamophobia and all other ideologies of hatred in general. [Not] weighing in on a particular individual’s perspective, I stuck to our broad values.

If you’re condemning terrorism and anti-Semitism, why not name and condemn the individual?

Because we have speakers all over campus. Am I going to go from class to class with public events and weigh in on them? What I’m going to promote are lots of conversation, lots of viewpoints, and I am going to make sure that everyone gets to have their viewpoint heard. Where universities fail is when one group feels safer to express itself than another group. Where I will have failed is if a group that wants to present a very competing vision — in this case of the Middle East, but it could be anything — I will have failed as university president if that group isn’t allowed to do that.

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler is a staff writer at J. You can reach him at and follow him on Twitter @ggreschler.