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Ancient text and imminent action

            You need not dig deep into the annals of history to find examples of religious bloodshed. From the Crusades to the Inquisition to the terrorist attacks seven years ago today, dogmatic interpretations of religious doctrine - spanning almost every set of beliefs - have contributed to countless deaths and persisting cleavages. But does censoring theological texts and statements remove these hatreds?

            Administrators at the University of Southern California (USC), after recently deleting sections from a Muslim student group website, appear to think so. The material in question is a collection of hadith, or proclamations passed down in the Muslim faith but not included in the Quran. These particular hadith - the aggrieved party pointed to five different statements - concerned the killing of Jews.

            A surface reading could lead one to believe that the statements are threats. Upon closer examination, though, these hadith are evidence of a mode of thought in Islamic tradition, far from a clear instructional guide for most practicing believers. Censoring these statements, in the presence of thousands of other nonviolent hadith on the student website, not only violates key principles of academic freedom, but it is an unconstitutional form of censorship.

            To understand this case, one must first examine the role of hadith in the Muslim religion. In short, hadith are the words and actions of the prophet Muhammad that have been passed down through generations, mainly by oral means. Because of this narrative nature, there are varying degrees of hadith authenticity. Both the actual words (matn) and the chain of narration (sanad) play an important role in determining validity. Indeed, some hadith flatly contradict others, and scholars carefully examine the origins and paths of each transmission, a practice known as the science of hadith. And the conclusions are different for each Muslim sect. Some reject the hadith used by others - for example, the six major hadith collections that are central to Sunni belief are not followed by a majority of Shi'a. Thus, the hadith is considered an important but ultimately supplemental guide to the Quran in Muslim living.

            On the website of the Muslim Student Association (MSA), a now defunct student group whose site is hosted by the Muslim Student Union on the USC server, is a compendium of Muslim texts. These include information on the pillars of belief, a section on misconceptions about Islam, and a searchable database of hadith. At the search page, there is a preface: "[W]e would like to warn you that this database is merely a tool, and not a substitute for learning, much less scholarship in Islam." (The site also makes clear that the views expressed are not affiliated with those of the university).

            Using this tool, Rabbi Aron Hier of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, a Jewish human-rights organization, found five hadith that advocated violence toward Jews, he said. After bringing it to the attention of a USC trustee, the university took action. Provost C. L. Max Nikias said "the passage cited is truly despicable...We did some investigations and have ordered the passage to be removed." The material was subsequently deleted, the Daily Trojan, USC's student newspaper, reported.

            Was this censorship necessary? Charlotte Korchak, incoming president of USC's Students for Israel and a member of the Hillel Jewish Center, thinks not. "I understand the fear of Jews and why some might have an issue of it being up. I understand the reaction of trying to get them removed," she told the Trojan. "At the same time, is that really going to help? I'm Jewish and those are hard to read and hard to comprehend, but it's their religion and it's a historical thing. To leave them out would be a lie."

            Not only would it arguably be a lie, but it would certainly be a statutory violation if the action was challenged in court. Because of a 1992 California statute known as Leonard's Law, First Amendment protections are applied to all private colleges and universities in the state. The Bill of Rights applies only to governmental organizations, including public universities, but this law extends protection to private institutions of higher education. Thus, the same standards for censorship apply to USC (a private university) as those schools funded by the state, giving administrators far less leeway in restricting student expression.

            To uphold their censorship, administrators would have to show that the website was likely to produce "imminent lawless action." This criterion is based on the opinion in Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969), where a Ku Klux Klan leader made inflammatory statements at a rally in rural Ohio. At the rally, references were made to the possibility of "revengeance" against "niggers" and "Jews," among other instances of hate speech. Brandenburg was found guilty under a Criminal Syndicalism statute, but the Supreme Court reversed the conviction, declaring that the government could not punish simply the advocacy of unlawful action. Because Brandenburg could not conceivably execute what he claimed in his fiery speeches, much less do so imminently, the high court ruled that his speech wasn't worth prior punishment.

            It is against this standard that the USC administrators would have to justify their action, and their case would undoubtedly be weak. The words were religious doctrine, and though they certainly expressed intolerance, it is highly unlikely that they would have spurned a student to actually kill their Jewish peers - much less to do so imminently.

            And the censorship also reeks of viewpoint discrimination. If Bible passages were posted to a USC website, would there be the same outcry for suppression? Leviticus 20:13, says, according to the New International Version, "If a man lies with a man as one lies with a woman, both of them have done what is detestable. They must be put to death; their blood will be on their own heads." Indeed, this excerpt could be seen as advocating violence against homosexuals, but unless it would do so imminently, rather than over the long term, the passage may not be prohibited or censored.

            Debating the violent tendencies of world religions is not important to this case, though. Preserving academic freedom is.

            When one hosts all points of view, there is a very practical benefit. Those who are offended know who holds what views, and who, if they deem necessary, to avoid. It is part of the genius of free speech - even hatred has a useful purpose. Suppression only shoots the messenger, but it does little to deter the message.

            The MSA's site hosts thousands of hadith. It is, as the site mentions, a tool for scholarly research, a device for the continuing evaluation of hadith authenticity. Rather than remove certain texts that are offensive to some, the site should be a forum through which students and faculty (and anyone else, for that matter) can glean truth from competing ideas. Rather than trying to change history by running from doctrine, we should encourage the dialogue that has largely made these radical viewpoints obsolete.

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