DN editorial: Friends' Central lacks integrity in shunning controversial speaker

ANOTHER WEEK, another hit delivered to free speech, this one coming from an unexpected source - a Quaker school.

Last week, the head of Friends' Central School, a Quaker private school in Wynnewood, uninvited a Palestinian who had been asked to speak by a student club. Students protested that decision, in part by walking out of an all-school gathering. This week, head of school Craig N. Sellers suspended two faculty advisers to the student group, saying - in effect - that they were inside agitators who had whipped up the student protest.

Or, as Sellers put it in a statement, the teachers disregarded "our guiding testimonies, which include community, peace and integrity."

We see it differently. In our view, it was Sellers who disrupted the peace of the Friends' Central community. And you can hardly call the muzzling of an invited speaker an example of integrity.

Some background: The Palestinian invited to speak is not a member of the PLO or Hamas. Sa'ed Atshan is a graduate of Ramallah Friends School, a Quaker school in Palestine that dates back to 1869. He was hired as an assistant professor in peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College in 2015, after stints at Harvard, Tufts and Brown.

Pro-Israel websites have identified him as a leader in the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, which is designed to bring economic pressure on Israel to end what BDS calls its occupation of Palestine.

Atshan was invited to speak by a student club formed to promote peace and equality in Palestine.

As word of that invitation spread, the report is that Jewish parents of students protested having a man they saw as an anti-Israeli activist speaking at Friends' Central. That's when Sellers pulled the plug on the event, or, as he put it, decided to "pause" having any speakers at the school to discuss the Middle East. He said that he would (of course) form a task force to consider the matter. Here's an idea: Why doesn't Friends' Central use duct tape to conceal that area of the world on classroom maps?

Atshan is not a ranter or bomber. It's hard to imagine he would be, given that he is a Quaker and a professor who specializes in peace. He seems pro-Palestinian, but does that make him automatically anti-Israel? It does in the minds of some Jewish factions.

Atshan hasn't spoken publicly about the controversy, but let's assume that he is fervently pro-Palestinian, does favor economic sanctions against Israel and that he expressed those views before a group of high school students. So what? Would the students rush out of the room waving PLO flags? Would he convert them into rabid anti-Zionists? We think not.

Consider such a speech either food for thought or a foolish viewpoint, but it hardly represents a danger to the minds of these students. Being a student means being exposed to conflicting facts, theories and beliefs. It's called learning.

The Quakers have always embraced free speech and espoused many unpopular causes. They opposed slavery and war at a time when you could get shot over those beliefs. William Penn went to jail in England because he would not give up his beliefs.

It would sadden Penn to see a school founded on his principles cowering in the corner, afraid to let students hear another viewpoint.

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