For Pamela Paul, Free Speech Attacks Over Palestine Don’t Count

The New York Times’s Pamela Paul postures as a free speech champion. Yet somehow, employers blacklisting student Palestine protesters doesn’t seem to bother her.

Pamela Paul attends the New York Times Book Review Live on October 23, 2018 in New York City. (Cindy Ord / Getty Images for the New York Times)

New York Times columnist Pamela Paul is very concerned about free speech. Her concerns go well beyond overt censorship like books being taken off the shelves of red-state school libraries — she’s interested in preserving a culture of free speech. In 2022, for example, she sounded the alarm about “a subtler form of repression” that makes “otherwise liberal-minded editors, agents and authors” hold back on publishing books that might invite backlash for violating orthodoxies of the Right or the Left.

Some of these concerns strike me as reasonable. I’ve never been the kind of leftist who thinks that the censorious atmosphere created by “cancel culture” isn’t a problem for free speech (and a whole lot else). But Paul has become so attuned to this kind of thing that sometimes she raises the alarm over a whole lot like nothing. Last year, for example, she wrote a column about a paper called “In Defense of Merit in Science” being rejected by “several prominent mainstream journals” before finally being accepted at something called the Journal of Controversial Ideas.

She seemed to take a paper she agreed with and found ideologically important being rejected as evidence of rampant self-censorship, effectively saying, Look at all these science journals that are afraid to publish these forbidden truths. It never seemed to occur to her that the paper being rejected might just be evidence for the far more mundane fact that it’s really hard to get published by major science journals.

The only journal she mentions by name that rejected the paper is the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). PNAS’s acceptance rate for submitted articles is 14 percent. And most of what makes it into that 14 percent seems to be short papers presenting empirical results. The journal does publish commentary, but most of it is far shorter than “In Defense of Merit in Science.” Did this particular paper ending up in the 86 percent of submissions to PNAS that don’t see print really merit a whole column in the New York Times?

But even if Paul sometimes stretches her critique beyond the point of plausibility, her core stated concern is an honorable one. She cares about free speech and robust debate about controversial ideas. A profile in the New Yorker quotes her as saying, “I admire people who are fearless.”

Odd, then, that, as two-thousand-pound bombs kill children in refugee camps in Rafah, Paul doesn’t seem to admire the protesters speaking out against these atrocities and calling for a cease-fire, often at great risk to their future career prospects or even jeopardizing their ability to graduate. Instead, in her New York Times column last week, she tacitly urges them to shut up about Gaza so as not to get blacklisted by future employers.

If she has the slightest problem with the blacklisting itself and its potential effects on her cherished free-speech ideals, she doesn’t hint at that in the column. Instead, she adopts a tone of friendly concern for the protesters. Don’t they realize that their childish antics could endanger future job offers?

Paul wrote her column seven and a half months into Israel’s campaign of ethnic cleansing in Gaza. Since the October 7 attack in Israel, millions of Palestinians have been forced from their homes. Tens of thousands of civilians have been directly slaughtered, and we aren’t likely to know for a very long time how many have lost their lives because of the total obliteration of Gaza’s infrastructure.

We do know that, even in absolute terms, the death toll dramatically exceeds that of other recent conflicts in far larger countries. In Ukraine, for example, the UN announced almost two years into Russia’s invasion that the civilian death toll had “topped 10,000.” That’s out of a country of forty-three million people. In Gaza, with its 2.3 million inhabitants — subjects but not citizens of the state of Israel — more than thirty-six thousand people have died, of whom at least two-thirds are civilians. (The only way to come to the conclusion that it’s only two-thirds is to pull out of thin air the assumption that every single adult male corpse was a Hamas fighter.)

These grim realities — the bloody facts that have led all of these students to protest in the first place — are almost nowhere in Paul’s column. The only appearance of the word “civilian” comes in a passage where she says that students “lacked the moral clarity” of protests against South African apartheid in an earlier generation because, as well as “demanding that Israel stop killing civilians in Gaza,” protesters have “stirred fears of antisemitism.”

She does find time to rattle off ways those fears have been stirred, some of which are pretty thin. She mentions, for example, protesters chanting, “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.” That could be a call for ethnic cleansing in the opposite direction from what’s been happening in the real world right now — or it could be a call for Israel to stop being an exclusively “Jewish state,” just as South Africa stopped being an exclusively “white state,” and grant citizenship to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza it’s ruled over for the last fifty-seven years.

Given that many of the protesters are themselves Jewish, and indeed Passover seders on the quad were a common sight at the Palestine encampments, common sense would strongly suggest the second reading. But Paul has decided on her narrative.

Meanwhile, it doesn’t even seem to occur to her to judge the behavior of billionaires like Bill Ackman trying to blacklist those students from future employment — and the troubling implications such actions have for freedom of speech. “Not all employers,” she tells us, “will look kindly on an encampment stint.” Anyway, “corporate America” doesn’t want troublemakers. “What flies on campus doesn’t necessarily pass in the real world.”

Nor does it seem to occur to her that the very fact about billionaires that makes them arbiters of what flies “in the real world” — their tremendous economic power — makes them a far more potent threat to free speech than any mob of woke college kids. All of Paul’s usual concerns about subtle “form[s] of repression” and “self-censorship” have flown out the window here.

She doesn’t condemn the censoriousness of blacklisting billionaires. Paul just reports it as if it were a fact of nature, chuckling a bit at the protesters who must not understand what they’re getting themselves into. In effect, she’s enlisted as part of the blacklisting process — the oh-so-friendly bystander earnestly advising potential victims (perhaps by way of their New York Times–reading parents) to keep quiet for their own good.

Her tone is gentle, her posture exasperated but friendly, and her criticisms of the protesters even relatively muted by the standards of the McCarthyist-style venom that has been directed their way for the last several months. She just, don’t you see, wants what’s best for these kids. Which, even if she’s not quite indelicate enough to put it this way, is for them to shut up about Gaza.

It doesn’t cross her mind that some of these students might be well aware of the risks, but think missing out on a corporate job in the future might be a price worth paying to speak out against an ongoing genocide being carried out with American weapons. That they might, in other words, be exactly the kind of “people who are fearless” she claims to admire. She just thinks they’re being foolish. And she wants them to be more fearful.