Coalition Statement on Bret Stephens’s Class Day Invitation

We, the undersigned students, faculty, and staff, have decided to make our collective voice heard in unequivocally condemning the administration’s decision to host Bret Stephens.

Content warning: This statement contains discussions of physical violence, sexual assault, and racism.

The following is a statement authored by a united coalition of student organizations—#CareNotCops, Students for Justice in Palestine, Students for Disability Justice, UChicago Against Displacement, UChicago DSA, and the Environmental Justice Task Force—voicing our unanimous opposition to the University’s decision to host Bret Stephens as this year’s Class Day speaker. We stand together in condemning Stephens’s invitation and call on University students, staff, faculty, and community members to join us by signing here.


Last month, the University of Chicago announced plans to host journalist Bret Stephens as its 2023 Class Day speaker. A veteran columnist for The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, Stephens has spent the better part of the last three decades acting as a professional mouthpiece for such forces as U.S. imperialism, Israeli apartheid, climate denialism, and racist policing. Still more troublingly, Stephens has used his journalistic platform to lend these and other reactionary causes a veneer of intellectual and political “respectability,” dressing up the grossest lies, crimes, and prejudices of the U.S. political establishment in the polished rhetoric of NYT-style journalism.

Consider first Stephens’s long track record of support for U.S. imperialism. During his tenure as editor of The Jerusalem Post, Stephens emerged as a prominent supporter of the U.S. invasion of Iraq—an illegal war of aggression that resulted in the deaths of some 500,000 civilians, the destruction of Iraqi society, the formation of ISIS, and the displacement of nearly 1 in 25 Iraqis. Incredibly, Stephens doubled down on his support for the war as recently as last March, praising the U.S. military for its success in toppling the Iraqi government and insisting, counterevidence be damned, that in fact “Iraq, the Middle East and the world are better off” as a result of the invasion. That the overwhelming majority of Iraqis feel otherwise is of no interest to Stephens. Here as elsewhere, Stephens displays a classic colonial indifference to what Arab and other non-Western populations think and feel about their lives and futures. Furthering the interests of his preferred Western imperial projects is Stephens’s only real concern: the havoc those projects wreak on faraway populations can be brushed aside as so much “tragic” collateral damage.

Stephens’s disregard for Arab life is nowhere more evident than in his history of enthusiastic support for Israeli colonialism. Stephens has devoted much of his career to cheerleading Israel’s century-long project of stealing Palestinian land, demolishing Palestinian homes, violently expelling Palestinian civilians, and replacing them with Jewish-only settlers. Still more galling, however, is Stephens’s insistence that it is the Palestinians—not their colonizers—who deserve primary blame for what they suffer. According to Stephens’s profoundly racist portrayal of the situation, Palestinians, like other Arabs, are a fundamentally backward and irrational people: perpetually victimized by their own foolish decisions, possessing no “great universit[ies]” or “serious scientific research” to boast of, imprisoned in a “stunted literary culture,” and consumed by a near-congenital “hatred” of Jews. The Palestinians’ real problem is not that they have had their land stolen, their history erased, their people butchered, and their rights trampled on for 75 years by an occupying superpower. No, the underlying problem is the Palestinians themselves: If only they would renounce their “culture of victimhood,” their love of “violence,” and their incorrigible “antisemitism”—what Stephens elsewhere calls “the disease of the Arab mind”—then surely their suffering would cease and they would enjoy the prosperity of the “civilized” world.

If this rhetoric of racialized victim-blaming sounds all too familiar, that’s because it is no less frequently employed by defenders of institutional racism in the domestic U.S. context. Here, too, Stephens has earned a paycheck for himself in recent years, using his journalistic platform to voice support for U.S. police departments and demonize the Movement for Black Lives. In one recent interview, Stephens attributes racist policing practices to the widespread “criminality” at work in Black communities and villifies Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a movement with “some really thuggish elements in it.” After chastising BLM for failing to recognize that police are “vital to the preservation of black lives,” Stephen goes on to criticize the movement for having created a “culture” marked by a “dramatic increase in murders.” What hyper-policed Black communities truly need, Stephens tells them, is not structural transformation as demanded by BLM or other Black organizers, but a modest process of “reform” grounded in the proper recognition that “all lives matter” and that “the great majority of police officers are hard-working, brave, public-spirited, working class men and women…tasked with some very unpleasant but essential jobs.”

Unsurprisingly, Stephens’s enthusiasm for “tough-on-crime” politics extends beyond police departments to the U.S. carceral system more generally. In one recent op-ed, Stephens celebrates Biden’s notorious 1994 crime bill by deploying the racialized rhetoric of “criminal deviancy” and attributing high crime rates to individuals’ choice to “disobey” the law—a problem successfully addressed, claims Stephens, by the bill’s revival of “broken-window policing.” Though Stephens briefly alludes to the regrettable “side effects” these policies have had on the lives of “offenders”—by which he means the mass incarceration and political disenfranchisement of hundreds of thousands of Black, Brown, and poor people—he ultimately champions the destructive era of superpredator politics as a moment of “moral clarity.” Mass incarceration, in his view, is “something for [Biden] to trumpet, not apologize for.” For Stephens, apparently, the fact that mass incarceration has stolen the lives, families, and basic rights of countless individuals—including the thousands of our peers currently imprisoned in Cook County Jail—bears less importance than the “greater margin of safety” such policies supposedly provide for citizens like him.

A similar disregard for the plight of vulnerable populations has marked Stephens’s years of ignorant commentary on the global climate crisis. In 2008, Stephens published an article entitled “Global Warming as Mass Neurosis” in which he dismissed climate change as a “mass hysteria phenomenon” and falsely claimed that much of the relevant science had been discredited. He has since repeated these claims in numerous articles and interviews, misrepresenting leaked emails from British climate scientists to justify his “climate agnosticism” and declaring climate change to be just another “imaginary enemy” of liberalism. (Other evils Stephens has dismissed as “imaginary” include the campus sexual assault epidemic, institutionized racism, and food insecurity.) While Stephens has more recently taken steps toward acknowledging the reality of anthropogenic climate change, the fact remains that he spent the better part of the last decade wielding his influence to disparage established climate science and uphold the U.S. culture of inaction around the crisis. Even now, Stephens continues to advocate against significant government intervention and “alarmist activism,” instead suggesting delay tactics that align with those preferred by private corporations. 

Stephens’s forays into pseudoscience have not, however, been limited to climate change. In one recent article—“The Mask Mandates Did Nothing. Will Any Lessons Be Learned?”—Stephens argues that masks make no difference in preventing the spread of respiratory illness, a claim that has been debunked numerous times by the medical and scientific communities and that rests upon a direct misinterpretation of the study he tried to cite. This argument has been deeply harmful in its impact on U.S. responses to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. It has been particularly devastating for already disabled people who are high-risk, suffer chronic health conditions, and have had difficulty leaving their homes for the past three years—in large part because of the spread of misinformation such as that peddled by Stephens. Furthermore, inasmuch as U.S. Covid policy bears directly on other axes of social justice—including the lack of protection against the pandemic faced by many workers and the limited access to Paxlovid and other medical care in many racialized communities—Stephens’s spread of misinformation has reinforced other societal inequities that the pandemic has exacerbated.  

Finally, given that the University has justified its decision to platform Stephens by appealing to the principle of free expression, it is worth noting that Stephens has himself shown complete disregard for the principles of free speech and labor solidarity during his tenure at the NYT. Stephens has repeatedly utilized his power and clout as a prominent columnist to limit criticism and attack his coworkers. Several of Stephens’s colleagues have come forward with accounts of his attempts to get them fired for expressing disagreement with his many bigoted articles. In 2020, for example, columnist Wajaheet Ali outlined Stephens’s impact on the NYT culture and workplace in a Twitter thread: “He has even emailed the masthead complaining about fellow editors or writers. As a result many walk on eggshells when it comes to him. There’s a simmering resentment and feelings of a very real double standard. People fear for their jobs so [they] remain quiet.” It is unacceptable for the University of Chicago, an institution that claims freedom of expression as a “core element” of its history and culture, to platform Stephens even as he actively curtails freedom of expression in one of the nation’s most powerful publications. This hypocrisy is made still more glaring by the fact that the University is sustained by the labor of thousands of unionized workers. The power of these workers and their unions is premised on the principles of solidarity and unity. Stephens’s harassment of and attacks against his fellow workers betray the basic principles of this solidarity that allow workers to bargain and fight for what they deserve. 

Commenting on the University’s decision to platform Stephens this year, Dean John Boyer described him as “one of the most insightful voices in American journalism today.” Given Stephens’s actual track record, we find this statement difficult to stomach. Yet in many ways, inviting a right-wing ideologue like Stephens is neither particularly surprising nor inconsistent with the University’s history and practice. After its use of racially restrictive covenants became outlawed, the University forcibly displaced generations of Black Americans from the Hyde Park–Kenwood neighborhood in a systematic effort to keep the area white. It then protected this newly seized territory by establishing a massive, unaccountable private police force—the UCPD—that disproportionately harasses and shoots Black and Brown community members. Building on these racist foundations, the University continues today to be complicit in the various oppressive systems supported by Stephens, as is evident in its hosting of Israeli generals, its ongoing displacement of Black communities, and its continued investment in fossil fuels. In these and other areas, the University plainly privileges the interests of wealthy administrators, trustees, and other profiteers over the needs of marginalized populations in Chicago and around the world.

But the University shouldn’t, and doesn’t, belong solely to those who administrate and profit from it—which is why we, the undersigned students, faculty, and staff, have decided to make our collective voice heard in unequivocally condemning the administration’s decision to host Bret Stephens. A University that maintains a culture of free expression while also respecting the dignity of its students, neighbors, and others around the world is certainly conceivable. So long as racist ideologues like Stephens are being hosted at Class Day ceremonies, however, there will remain a long way to go toward achieving this goal.



Environmental Justice Task Force

Students for Disability Justice

Students for Justice in Palestine

UChicago Against Displacement

UChicago Democratic Socialists of America


View the complete list of signatures here. Signatures are updated regularly.