Editorial Roundup: United States

Excerpts from recent editorials in the United States and abroad:

May 11

The New York Times on college campus protests

Protesting the world’s wrongs has been a rite of passage for generations of American youth, buoyed by our strong laws protecting free speech and free assembly. Yet the students and other demonstrators disrupting college campuses this spring are being taught the wrong lesson — for as admirable as it can be to stand up for your beliefs, there are no guarantees that doing so will be without consequence.

The highest calling of a university is to craft a culture of open inquiry, one where both free speech and academic freedom are held as ideals. Protest is part of that culture, and the issue on which so many of the current demonstrations are centered — U.S. involvement in the Israel-Hamas conflict — ought to be fiercely and regularly debated on college campuses.

The constitutional right to free speech is the protection against government interference restricting speech. Therefore, leaders at public universities, which are funded by government, have a heightened duty to respect those boundaries. Private institutions don’t have the same legal obligations, but that doesn’t relieve them of the responsibility to encourage open dialogue whenever and wherever possible on their campuses. It’s essential to the pursuit of learning.

In the real world, though, this can get messy, and nuance is required when free speech comes into tension with protecting academic freedom. The earliest universities to adopt the principle of academic freedom did so to thwart interference and influence from totalitarian states and religious zealotry. Today, the American Association of University Professors defines it as “the freedom of a teacher or researcher in higher education to investigate and discuss the issues in his or her academic field and to teach or publish findings without interference from political figures, boards of trustees, donors or other entities.”

Student codes of conduct and other guidelines are meant to relieve some of the tension between free speech and academic freedom, as well as to ensure that schools are in compliance with government regulations and laws. Every campus has them. But rules matter only when guardrails are consistently upheld. It’s in that enforcement that the leadership of too many universities has fallen short.

The point of protest is to break such rules, of course, and to disrupt daily routines so profoundly as to grab the world’s attention and sympathies. Campuses should be able to tolerate some degree of disruption, which is inherent to any protest. That makes it even more important that school administrators respond when the permissible limits for speech are violated.

During the current demonstrations, a lack of accountability has helped produce a crisis.

It has left some Jewish students feeling systematically harassed. It has deprived many students of access to parts of campus life. On campuses where in-person classes or commencement exercises were canceled, students have watched their basic expectations for a university experience evaporate. And at times, the protesters themselves have been directly endangered; the disarray and violence of the past weeks have been escalated by the continued involvement of both the police and external agitators.

Amid the protests, there has been much discussion of both antisemitism and Islamophobia and when the line is crossed into hate speech. There are profound risks to imposing overly expansive definitions of inappropriate speech, and universities were rightly chided for doing so in the past. But it should be easy to agree that no student, faculty member, administrator or university staff member on a campus should be threatened or intimidated. School policies should reflect that, and they should be enforced when necessary.

In the longer term, a lack of clarity around acceptable forms of expression and a failure to hold those who break those norms to account, has opened up the pursuit of higher learning to the whims of those motivated by hypocrisy and cynicism.

For years, right-wing Republicans, at the federal and state level, have found opportunities to crusade against academic freedom, with charges of antisemitism on campus serving as the latest vehicle. Speaker Mike Johnson of the House of Representatives used this moment of chaos as cover to begin a legislative effort to crack down on elite universities, and lawmakers in the House recently passed a proposal that would impose egregious government restrictions on free speech. The Senate should reject those efforts unequivocally.

The absence of steady and principled leadership is what opened the campus gates to such cynicism in the first place. For several years, many university leaders have failed to act as their students and faculty have shown ever greater readiness to block an expanding range of views that they deem wrong or beyond the pale. Some scholars report that this has had a chilling effect on their work, making them less willing to participate in the academy or in the wider world of public discourse. The price of pushing boundaries, particularly with more conservative ideas, has become higher and higher.

Schools ought to be teaching their students that there is as much courage in listening as there is in speaking up. It has not gone unnoticed — on campuses but also by members of Congress and by the public writ large — that many of those who are now demanding the right to protest have previously sought to curtail the speech of those whom they declared hateful.

Establishing a culture of openness and free expression is crucial to the mission of educational institutions. That includes clear guardrails on conduct and enforcement of those guardrails, regardless of the speaker or the topic. Doing so would not only help restore order on college campuses today but would also strengthen the cultural bedrock of higher education for generations to come.

ONLINE: https://www.nytimes.com/2024/05/11/opinion/campus-protests.html

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May 9

The Washington Post on the effects of smartphones on children

In the 21st century, American life is lived shoulders hunched, head down, eyes glued to a smartphone screen. All right, that’s an exaggeration — but not a huge one. Nine in 10 Americans own one of these devices; among teens, nearly 1 in 5 say they use social media “ almost constantly.”

What data also show is that the explosion of cellphone use has coincided with a mental health crisis among youths, who have been dubbed “ The Anxious Generation ” in the title of a new book by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. Forty-two percent of high school students in a 2021 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reported persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness. Eighteen percent said they had made a suicide plan in the past year. Teenage girls especially are at risk.

This crisis has to be addressed, which means the precise link between cellphone use and mental distress has to be understood.

Haidt and others have argued, plausibly, that the connection is one of cause, not mere correlation. During critical developmental stages, kids need exposure to a broad range of experiences, including some risky ones. But between helicopter parenting and the allure of endless screen time, they’re staying inside on Instagram and TikTok instead. In this view, phones are “experience blockers,” which prevent kids from having the interactions — fighting and then peacemaking, for instance, or plain old problem-solving — that build maturity and resiliency. Whereas online social interaction can be faceless, fleeting or both, face-to-face conversation teaches social cues and in-person encounters can lead to sustained relationships.

There is a wrinkle, however. The science on all of this is less than certain. For every study that substantiates a causal link between the mental health crisis and cellphone usage, there’s another study that does not. Analyses of the very same data sets that some academics have interpreted as showing phones are at fault for teens’ and tweens’ struggles have yielded conflicting results. Social media explains only tiny amounts of the variation in depressive symptoms among teenagers — with digital technology use, in one finding, producing less of an effect on mental health than eating potatoes.

Perhaps the most noteworthy conclusion, reached in a review of 37 studies published in an American Psychological Association journal, is about the state of the research itself: Basically, it’s poor. This is partly because of the difficulty of coming up with a control group; no social scientist can muster a collection of kids born in the 2000s who did not use smartphones, to compare with their device-addled peers. And it is partly because the social media companies do not publish detailed data that could be key to more rigorous analysis.

Another flaw, well described by Pete Etchells in his book “ Unlocked: The Real Science of Screen Time,” could well be that the questions we’re asking are simply too broad — because neither “social media” nor “mental health” mean just one thing. Doomscrolling through threads on X is different from a prolonged one-on-one interaction via direct message; logging on after school is different from logging on during school; four hours a day is different from one hour a day; a well-adjusted teen might react differently to a steady stream of curated bikini photos than a teen already struggling with body-image issues. Research also points to the possibility that social media’s impact is most profound during certain developmental “windows of sensitivity.”

There is room, then, for progress. Instead of general questions such as “Is screen time causing a mental health crisis for kids?,” researchers could focus on specific ones such as “What kind of screen time are we talking about? What kind of mental health? What kind of kids?”

All of the above gets at what we don’t yet know about social media. But it’s also worth remembering what we do know. Outdoor play is good for kids. Spending time with family is good for kids. So are paying attention in school and getting enough sleep. And there’s no doubt that phones get in the way of at least some of these healthful habits: The average daily screen time per young person continues to rise, but each day still contains 24 hours. This effect — call it displacement, or substitution, or opportunity cost — deserves consideration, even if there’s nothing inherently harmful happening on the screens that are taking up so many hours and dominating so much attention.

A positive vision for what a healthy childhood looks like is just as important as a negative vision of the technology-related habits to avoid. For teachers, parents and legislators concerned by the very real mental health crisis engulfing the country’s young people, articulating such a vision might be the best place to start.

ONLINE: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2024/05/09/smartphone-social-media-mental-health-teens/

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May 12

The Wall Street Journal on Trump’s Veep choice

Donald Trump is doing his “Apprentice” thing and publicly auditioning candidates for Vice President. One exception: Nikki Haley is nowhere to be found. No sooner did Axios report that Ms. Haley was being considered than Mr. Trump issued a personal statement this weekend that she’s out of the running. Mr. Trump at least said he wishes her well, but rejecting her doesn’t solve his main campaign problem of appealing to Haley voters.

Vice Presidents are rarely decisive in presidential elections, but they can matter for governing and the country’s future. This year the VP choice may matter more than usual on all of those counts. If Mr. Trump wins he’d be an immediate lame duck who can serve only one term. He turns 78 in June, and he’d be the second oldest President after the current one.

Mike Pence was an excellent choice in 2016 as an experienced, steady hand who also reassured social conservatives. He helped to populate the first Trump Administration with talented policy experts. On Jan. 6 he stood up to Mr. Trump’s bullying and put the Constitution ahead of his own ambition.

Mr. Trump needs a comparably reassuring choice this year to win over the suburban, college-educated and women voters who cost him re-election in 2020. They’re still giving Ms. Haley upwards of 20% in the GOP primaries, though she long ago ended her campaign.

Ms. Haley ought to be in the VP mix given her strong primary performance. She outlasted everyone but Mr. Trump and did well in debates. She has foreign-policy experience and was a two-term Governor of South Carolina. She’d provide a notable contrast in competence and charisma to Vice President Kamala Harris.

The conventional wisdom is that Mr. Trump can’t accept someone with strong views of her own, which would rule out Ms. Haley. That’s probably the safest bet, and Ms. Haley hasn’t endorsed him. But choosing a strong woman would be surprising enough that it might cause skeptical swing voters to take another look at the former President. The MAGA diehards would howl, but they aren’t going to stay home or vote for Mr. Biden.

This assumes Ms. Haley would accept the VP offer, which carries more risk for her than for Mr. Trump. A second Trump term is likely to be as chaotic and divisive as the first, with Democrats implacably opposed to everything. Second terms are rarely a success, and the VP would go down with the ship. Then again, few people turn down the chance to be so close to power.

Who else could unite the party by reassuring Haley voters? A strong and logical choice would be Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, who has shown he can win and govern in a swing state. He’s smart, likable and a conservative who is impossible for the left to portray as crazy. He’d signal that Mr. Trump realizes he can’t win with MAGA alone. The Trump campaign is boasting that it will target Virginia this year, and if that’s more than spin Mr. Youngkin can help.

Of those at Mr. Trump’s recent VP pageant at Mar-a-Lago, few stand out. One who does is North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, who would be an adult in White House councils. He was a success as an entrepreneur and understands markets and global economic competition. He’s not flashy, but Mr. Trump needs mature.

Another outside-the-Beltway choice would be Gov. Kim Reynolds, who has cut taxes and taken political risks to pass universal school choice in Iowa. She hasn’t withstood the rigors of national scrutiny, which is always a risk, especially on foreign policy. And Mr. Trump may not forgive her for endorsing Ron DeSantis in the Iowa caucuses.

The biggest question is whether Mr. Trump wants his VP choice to expand his coalition or be a MAGA echo. Most of those on the stage behind him at Mar-a-Lago wouldn’t appeal to the Haley voter. Tulsi Gabbard has been courting Mr. Trump, but the former Democrat’s isolationism should be a deal-breaker. She denounced Mr. Trump’s first-term assassination of Iranian killer Qasem Soleimani.

Republicans are increasingly confident they can win this year, but the presidential race is still in the margin of error. Mr. Trump’s choice as VP is an opportunity to showcase a contrast to Ms. Harris, who could become President if Mr. Biden wins. He needs Haley voters, whether or not he chooses Ms. Haley.

ONLINE: https://www.wsj.com/articles/trumps-vice-presidential-opportunity-candidate-election-05e7aa64?mod=editorials_article_pos10

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May 14

The Los Angeles Times on the House antisemitism bill

With campus protests against the war in Gaza as a backdrop, President Biden last week rightly denounced incidents in which “Jewish students (were) blocked, harassed, attacked while walking to class.” Such actions are appalling even if they involve a minority of protesters.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education released updated guidance for educational institutions about compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs receiving federal financial assistance, a statute the department interprets as protecting Jews, Muslims and Sikhs. The latest guidance includes a description of situations in which Jewish students are targeted — for example, a complaint that a dormitory room door was defaced with swastikas.

Biden’s remarks and the Education Department’s decision to issue updated guidance are appropriate responses to the concerns of Jewish students. Not appropriate — in fact, arguably unconstitutional — is a bill overwhelmingly approved by the House that would have the Education Department use an expansive definition of antisemitism that could chill political speech.

Although it received significant support from Democrats, the Antisemitism Awareness Act was brought to the floor by Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and must be seen as part of election-year efforts by Republicans to portray Biden and the Democratic Party as soft on antisemitism.

The problem with the Antisemitism Awareness Act is that it directs the Education Department to “take into consideration” the working definition of antisemitism promulgated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance when determining whether there has been a Title VI violation. That definition offers examples of what everyone would regard as antisemitism. But it also gives as examples of antisemitism criticisms of Israel that, even if they are unfair, are protected speech.

For instance, the IHRA definition provides these examples as antisemitism: “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” and “applying double standards by requiring of (Israel) a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Israel is a member state of the United Nations and is not going away, nor should it. But some people, including college students, believe that Israel should be replaced by a secular state not tied to any religion or ethnicity. Expressing or debating this idea isn’t the same as spewing hatred against Jews.

Even more susceptible to abuse is the notion that it is antisemitic to subject Israel to double standards “by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” Does this mean that a student or professor is guilty of antisemitism for criticizing Israel but not other democratic nations?

Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), describing himself as a “a deeply committed Zionist who firmly believes in Israel’s right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people,” nevertheless opposed the legislation. Agreeing with the American Civil Liberties Union, Nadler warned that “if this legislation were to become law, colleges and universities that want to avoid Title VI investigations, or the potential loss of federal funding, could end up suppressing protected speech criticizing Israel or supporting Palestinians.” Moreover, he added, “it could result in students and faculty self-censoring their political speech.”

The Education Department has said that it considers the IHRA definition in some of its investigations in determining whether there is discriminatory intent. But it also has said that an antisemitic act “does not violate Title VI merely because . . . it involves an example of antisemitism contemplated by the IHRA.” In enforcing Title VI, the department tries to determine if there is pervasive conduct that creates a hostile learning environment.

Some might argue that adopting the House bill wouldn’t matter because the Education Department already takes the IHRA definition into account. But both supporters and opponents of the Antisemitism Awareness Act think that it would make a difference. It would — but in a negative way. And enshrining the definition in federal law would make it harder for a future administration to decide that the definition isn’t useful.

Protecting all students from harassment and intimidation on the basis of their identity is a vital objective. But it can and must be accomplished without infringing on freedom of speech.

ONLINE: https://www.latimes.com/opinion/story/2024-05-14/editorial-antisemitism-congress-bill-biden

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May 14

The Guardian says Ukrainian allies must renew their focus

Antony Blinken’s unannounced visit to Kyiv on Tuesday was a welcome and timely show of support. It was the US secretary of state’s first trip to Ukraine since America belatedly signed off on a $61bn aid package last month, allowing a desperately needed supply of new arms to finally flow to troops in the east. As Mr Blinken met President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in the capital, events continued to underline how urgently such assistance – and much more of the same – is required.

The ultimate scope of Russia’s significant offensive in the Kharkiv region is yet to become clear. In part it may be intended to create a buffer zone, protecting Russian territory close to the north-east border. But as thousands of residents are once more displaced, and the prospect looms of a huge artillery assault on the city of Kharkiv, the incursions are also diverting threadbare Ukrainian resources from the eastern front. That may facilitate new Russian breakthroughs in the Donbas region.

Faced with a war of attrition along a vast frontline – and with recruitment a pressing and increasingly fraught issue – Ukrainian forces are outnumbered and outgunned. But the west could have done more in recent months to bolster defences, in anticipation of an offensive of this kind. The horror that has unfolded in Israel and Gaza has diverted international attention and focus. Political dysfunction in Washington, and a cumbersome decision-making and delivery process in Brussels, have compounded the problem. In consequence, Ukraine’s military risks being left short, as what may be a crucial phase in Vladimir Putin’s brutal, illegal war begins.

As he has been obliged to do with allies throughout the war, Mr Zelenskiy welcomed Mr Blinken by expressing gratitude for the help received, while urgently pleading for more. The west has been wary of delivering long-range weapons that could be used to take the war deep into Russian territory. But upping the pace and level of assistance need not cross red lines. Two more air defence systems, Mr Zelenskiy told the secretary of state, were necessary for the defence of Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city. As relentless Russian aerial barrages have become bigger and more sophisticated, limited resources are forcing Ukrainian commanders to choose between defending urban centres and crucial infrastructure. A reboot of defensive capacities is required if they are not to risk being overwhelmed.

Mr Blinken’s visit was also timely for a second reason. Almost a thousand miles to the south of Kharkiv, in Tbilisi, the Georgian ruling party’s flirtations with a pro-Moscow position are coming to a dangerous and violent head. The appointment earlier this year of a new pro-Russian prime minister, after a government reshuffle, has been followed by a crackdown on LGBTQ+ rights and a new “foreign agents” bill, passed in the Georgian parliament on Tuesday.

Transparently, the purpose of the law is to legitimise harassment and stigmatisation of civil rights groups and non-governmental organisations deemed to be promoting a liberal, “pro-western” agenda. The seemingly deliberate jeopardising of Georgia’s ambitions to join the EU, which has condemned the thuggish suppression of protests against the bill, points ominously towards the kind of Russian-influenced destabilisation already evident in Moldova.

Events in Tbilisi underline the geopolitical stakes being played for as Mr Putin seeks to grind out a winning position of strength in Ukraine, and reconstitute Russian hegemony elsewhere. As the pace suddenly quickens after a period of relative stalemate, and the Kremlin seeks to overwhelm Kyiv through sheer weight of numbers and materiel, the west must keep its focus and ensure that Ukraine continues to receive backing.

ONLINE: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/article/2024/may/14/the-guardian-view-on-russia-new-offensive-ukraine-allies-must-renew-their-focus

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