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Temple University's board issued a statement Tuesday saying that the controversial anti-Israel remarks a professor recently made at the United Nations -- comments some have called anti-Semitic -- were protected as free speech by the Constitution.

Tuesday's statement backed away from comments Temple's board chair made earlier suggesting that the professor, Marc Lamont Hill, could be punished. "Free speech is one thing. Hate speech is entirely different," the chair, Patrick O'Connor, said in early December. Further, he said he had instructed Temple's legal office to consider steps the university could take in response to the speech. "We're going to look at what remedies we have."

Those comments appeared to undercut earlier statements from Temple president Richard M. Englert that the comments, while he disagreed with them, were protected free speech. Temple's faculty union, and experts on academic freedom and professors with a range of views on Israel, condemned O'Connor, saying that his comments reflected a lack of respect for academic freedom.

Tuesday's board statement said that Hill had the right to express his views. "In giving this speech outside of his role as a teacher and researcher at Temple, Professor Hill was not speaking on behalf of or representing the university," the statement said. "We recognize that Professor Hill’s comments are his own, that his speech as a private individual is entitled to the same Constitutional protection of any other citizen, and that he has through subsequent statements expressly rejected anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence."

The statement also said that board members "hereby state their disappointment, displeasure, and disagreement with Professor Hill’s comments," but that there were no threats of any punishment for Hill.

What Hill Said

The controversy concerned a talk Hill, a professor of media studies at Temple, gave at the United Nations about Palestinian rights. Hill ended the speech by saying that he hoped for a free Palestine "from the river to the sea." That phrase is commonly used by Palestinian supporters and is viewed by many as a call to eliminate Israel.

The river in the phrase is the Jordan River, which marks the eastern border of Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank with Jordan. The sea is the Mediterranean, which marks Israel's western border. A Palestinian state from the river to the sea, many say, means one in which Israel does not exist. Many consider calls to eliminate Israel as a nation to be not just anti-Israel, but anti-Semitic.

Other critics noted that Hill's speech (viewable here on YouTube), while endorsing nonviolent protest, said that Palestinians should not be limited to nonviolent tactics.

But Hill said after the controversy broke out that he did not use the phrase in the way his critics suggested, and he disavowed anti-Semitism. On Twitter, he wrote, "My reference to 'river to the sea' was not a call to destroy anything or anyone. It was a call for justice, both in Israel and in the West Bank/Gaza. The speech very clearly and specifically said those things. No amount of debate will change what I actually said or what I meant."

He also said on Twitter, "I support Palestinian freedom. I support Palestinian self-determination. I am deeply critical of Israeli policy and practice. I do not support anti-Semitism, killing Jewish people, or any of the other things attributed to my speech. I have spent my life fighting these things."

In his speech, Hill referenced the 1967 borders of Israel, in which that country did exist.

CNN fired Hill as a commentator after his speech. Many academics said that Temple's board chair had no right to order the university's legal staff to look for ways to punish Hill. An open letter from more than 500 scholars said, "We are dismayed that the board has looked into procedures for Dr. Hill’s firing simply for expressing solidarity with the Palestinian people. Instead of continuing the pursuit of any retributive actions against Dr. Hill, particularly those efforts that infringe upon his academic freedom and First Amendment guarantee to free speech, we urge the university to join his advocacy for universal human rights worldwide."

Adam Steinbaugh of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, one of the groups that criticized the statement by Temple's board chair, said Tuesday that the new statement from the board was welcome.

"Temple University was right when it first concluded that Hill's speech was protected by the First Amendment," Steinbaugh said. "Its board chairman did it no favors by announcing that he had directed its legal team to explore 'remedies' and suggesting that 'hate speech' was unprotected. Temple's renewed recognition that Hill spoke as a private citizen, and that the First Amendment protects his right to do so, is welcome."

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