Legal groups warn universities against stifling Palestine activism

Submitted by Nora Barrows


Students for Justice in Palestine activists rally for free speech and academic freedom at Brooklyn College, February 2013. (Photo courtesy of SJP-Brooklyn College Facebook page)

The following is from a press release for a letter sent to more than 140 US universities this week from Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and partnering civil rights and advocacy organizations.

Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and its partners — including the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus and others — sent a letter to more than 140 universities on 3 November, cautioning administrators against heeding calls to censor or stifle expression criticizing the state of Israel or advocating for Palestinian human rights.

Acknowledging the pressure on universities to police and punish viewpoints critical of Israel, the letter offers legal guidelines to help schools respond.

It emphasizes that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has soundly rejected allegations that advocacy for Palestinian rights constitutes harassment of Jewish students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The letter also warns universities against the now endemic use of the vague and highly subjective concept of “civility” as a tool to limit free speech on campus, specifically speech that is critical of the Israeli occupation. This term has been used recently by university administrators to justify the termination of Professor Steven Salaita’s tenured appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; to condemn political expression at Ohio State University; and in remarks by Chancellor Nicholas Dirks at UC Berkeley attempting to define the boundaries of campus speech — ironically on the anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Emphasizing the university’s obligation to protect the free speech of its students and faculty, the letter states:

Debate, disagreement, and free expression, including protests, demonstrations, and other expressive activities, embody the highest values of a free university and a democratic society. We hope your university — through its policies, public statements, and actions — will treat freedom of speech not as a burden or a legal limitation, but rather, as a foundational value that enables searching scholarship and democratic governance.

Students’ rights threatened

The letter comes at a time when students’ rights to advocate for Palestine are increasingly threatened. This past year, Students for Justice in Palestine chapters across the country have been told to dilute their message, told not to use the word “Palestine,” burdened with fines and security fees for their events, accused of “incivility” and anti-Semitisminvestigated and suspended for time-honored forms of political protest and more.

In the coming weeks, the group of civil rights organizations will send a second batch of letters to dozens more universities where Students for Justice in Palestine chapters are active, and their speech rights are under threat.

The letter is directed to the President of Florida Atlantic University, a school with a history of unlawfully punishing students who advocate for Palestinian rights.

Palestine Solidarity Legal Support’s seven-page letter and additional legal advisory is below.

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