The Smell Of Discontent

The Columbia student was a former soldier in the Israeli Defense Force, and so the narrative immediately went to toxic chemical weapons, allegedly causing “headaches, fatigue, and nausea,” causing pro-Palestinian protesters to seek medical attention. It was, as Aaron Sibirium called it, “a progressive fever dream.”

Pro-Palestinian protesters told the Columbia Spectator they had been sprayed with “skunk,” a crowd-control chemical developed by the Israeli Defense Forces, at a rally in January. Mainstream media amplified the allegations, and Columbia suspended a student involved in the “attack”—who had previously served in IDF—within days.

The narrative was a progressive fever dream: At one of the best universities in the country, an Israeli student had deployed chemical weapons against peaceful student protesters for challenging the alleged depredations of the Jewish state.

Unsurprisingly, Columbia suspended the students within days, with President Minouche Shafik repeating the claim that the student sprayed protesters with a toxic chemical weapon. Except it wasn’t.

It now appears that the “toxic chemical” was a harmless fart spray purchased on Amazon for $26.11.

According to a lawsuit filed against Columbia on Tuesday, the suspended student had in fact dispersed “Liquid Ass”—a “gag gift for adults and kids,” per its product description—at an unsanctioned pro-Palestinian rally. He sprayed the substance in the air, not at any particular individual, in what the lawsuit describes as a “harmless expression of speech.” The result was a swift suspension for which the student is now suing, alleging that the university “rushed to silence Plaintiff and brand him as a criminal” through “biased misconduct proceedings.”

Was this a chemical attack on protesting students or a protected expression of opinion, of outrage against the antisemitic protest? Was this student’s suspension, in contrast to the University’s failure to do much of anything to restrain protests in violation of University policy, to protest Jewish students from flagrant antisemitism from students and professors, a violation of Title VI and the duty owed by Columbia to its students?

The university has seen a raft of protests—many of them held in violation of university rules—where students promoted the attacks and chanted slogans like “Intifada” and “glory to our martyrs.” One unsanctioned event, “Resistance 101,” featured speakers from Israeli-designated terror groups and praise for plane hijackings, which Khaled Barakat, a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, described as an “important tactic” of the “Palestinian resistance.”

In testimony before a House committee, President Shafik conceded under heavy Republican pressure that Columbia had some serious antisemitic issues. But does that make spraying “fart spray” protected speech in reaction?

Had the student, in fact, sprayed a toxic chemical, there would be little question but that it fell outside any protection for free expression. But what about when it’s not a secret IDF toxic chemical, but “Liquid Ass”—a “gag gift for adults and kids”?

There’s an adage that while you may have the right to say something, that doesn’t mean you should, and regardless of whether spraying “fart spray” is protected or not, it reflected a poor exercise of discretion. But was its purpose to express the student’s outrage or vehement disagreement with those supporting terrorism and the murder of Jews? Certainly, free expression isn’t limited to the spoken word, and expressive conduct, from signs to photographs to beating drums to marching are all protected, and common, means of expression an opinion.

The difference here is that “fart spray” might well have been a rather strong means of expression, but it also left a residual stank on others beyond mere expression. It might not have been toxic, but it was noxious. It might not have done harm beyond the hysteria of assuming it was medically toxic when it was not, but it did force students exposed to the spray to endure a disgusting stench, and that stench may well have remained on their clothing or in their hair.

But the issue raised by Columbia’s leap to accept the narrative that this was some toxic chemical weapon, and suspend the student based on that premise, remains. Assuming the fart spray went beyond the bounds of free expression by its impact on others, even if it wasn’t sprayed directly on them but merely in their vicinity, it was still only a “gag gift.” It may well have been extremely unpleasant, but it was hardly a chemical weapon. And it was an expression of outrage, even if it was an imperfect exercise of free speech.

Given that Columbia University saw no reason to take action against other students who, in support of Palestinians or Hamas, and against Israel or Jews, its suspension of this student for stinking up the place when Columbia would provide no support or protection to its Jewish students seems excessive and improper. Fart spray may stink, but so too did Columbia’s response to it when the smell of discontent permeated the University.

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