Students forced to sign "civility" statements for walk-out protest

21 August 2013

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Northeastern students walked out of an event featuring Israeli soldiers in April.

(Tess Scheflan / ActiveStills)

On 7 August, students gathered at Northeastern University in Boston to demand that the administration rescind the academic probation it imposed on our campus Palestine solidarity group earlier this year.

Supported by the National Lawyers Guild, the Center for Constitutional Rights and local union and civil rights groups, the demonstrators handed out leaflets and urged the university president to “change the policy on demonstrations and remove the sanctions placed on SJP [Students for Justice in Palestine],” as reported by OpenMedia Boston.

In April, Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern was disciplined in an arbitrary and overtly political attempt to censor our speech based on our pro-Palestinian content. Because we protested a talk given by Israeli soldiers, the university administration has subjected our group to an opaque and exaggerated disciplinary process.

On college campuses across the United States, student Palestine solidarity activists are being punished, intimidated and censored. From administrative sanction, to personal threats, to coordinated smear campaigns orchestrated by outside organizations, it is has been a trying time to be organizing around Palestine on campus.

The protest

Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern learned that on 8 April, a panel of active-duty Israeli soldiers was coming to our campus, in an event sponsored by Huskies for Israel, Northeastern’s pro-Israel student group. The event was advertised as an opportunity to hear soldiers “present themselves openly — as Israelis, as members of the IDF, and as young adults placed in often impossibly difficult circumstances.”

Based on the well-documented human rights violations committed by the Israeli military in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, we decided to walk out of the event in protest of their presentation. We thought this tactic struck a balance between respecting the free speech rights of the presenters and expressing our abhorrence that they were being hosted at our university.

The Northeastern administration knew of our plans to protest in advance and we agreed there would be no picket signs or vocal disruptions.

Students for Justice in Palestine members and our supporters prepared for the walk-out by taping the names of children killed by the Israeli army on our shirts. Our group of approximately 35 participants then entered the event one by one.

Once the soldiers were introduced, one member of SJP stood up and stated, “the IDF are war criminals and are not welcome on our campus,” at which point almost half of the audience walked out.

We chanted “free, free Palestine,” as we filed out of the room. The entire walk-out lasted thirty seconds and then the event proceeded as planned.

Students across the country have organized similar actions to challenge unconditional support for Israel’s egregious policies. Just a week after our protest, students at Florida Atlantic University walked out of a presentation by Israeli soldiers (“FAU students investigated for ‘disruptive behavior’ during protest,” FAU University Press, 1 May 2013).

These students were threatened with individual conduct violations and some were put on indefinite probation. In a stunning twist, Florida Atlantic University’s administration demanded that several of the students attend a “training” program designed by the Anti-Defamation League — an Israel lobby organization that has pressured university administrations across the US to stifle Palestine solidarity activism.

Perhaps the most infamous case of a student walk-out is that of the Irvine 11 — students at the University of California at Irvine interrupted a speech by Israeli ambassador Michael Oren in 2010. The students were arrested, prosecuted and eventually convicted of “conspiracy to disrupt a public meeting” in 2011.

Opaque disciplinary process

Clearly, there is a double standard being applied to the administration’s handling of student protest.

Three years ago, a pro-Israel student group disrupted and nearly derailed an SJP-hosted lecture by author Norman Finkelstein, and no disciplinary action was taken.

On the other hand, our disciplinary process began the day after our walk-out. Three hours before our guest speaker, Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, was scheduled to give his speech, we received an email from the director of the student activities office informing us that our group was under investigation for our actions the previous night and that our event was canceled.

A week later, we were notified of an administrative hearing for our group regarding charges of failure to comply with the directions of staff member and violation of the university demonstration policy.

We were only permitted one representative from our group at the hearing. After much debate, we sent three. At the hearing, we explained our actions and why we believed they did not violate policy. The administration representative seemed to understand our position and assured us that this process was only intended to be educational.

However, in an attempt to prevent future political actions, we were found “responsible” for violating the university’s demonstration policy and sanctioned. We were forced to write a “civility” statement and our group was put on administrative probation until the end of the year.

Legal support

When notified that we were under administrative investigation, we immediately contacted the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support Initiative, a project of the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR).

The CCR was tremendously knowledgeable about how to handle our situation. They advised our correspondence with the administration and connected us to the Massachusetts chapters of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and National Lawyers Guild (NLG).

Attorneys from the CCR, ACLU and NLG wrote letters to the head of counsel and president of Northeastern.

The groups asserted that Students for Justice in Palestine was being unfairly singled out for administrative scrutiny in this matter. They concluded that this treatment seemed to be discriminatory, based on the political message of the group, rather than because of any legitimate concerns from the university about breaches of protocol.

The letters urged the groups to rescind the sanctions and examine the manner in which SJP was treated. Additionally, they raised concerns about the overly restrictive “demonstration policy” that the university was attempting to enforce.

Media spotlight

The mainstream media’s surprisingly positive reaction to this situation is an encouraging sign that the discourse surrounding open criticism of Israeli policies is shifting.

Yvonne Abraham of The Boston Globe took a principled stand, writing in her column that Northeastern’s actions were completely counter to efforts to encourage meaningful discourse on important issues. When “balancing the right to protest against the need for decorum, Northeastern tilted too hard toward the latter,” she stated (“Stifling student voices,” 13 June 2013).

Abraham’s column was met with hundreds of supportive letters to the editor, including one by a member of our legal team which was published by the Globe.

Our campus newspaper also published an editorial that came down firmly on our side and condemned the university’s demonstration policy (“Editorial: NU protest policy is harmful,” The Huntington News, 20 June 2013).

Scrutiny

Although the support from mainstream media was welcome, it was certainly not the first time our group faced discriminatory treatment at Northeastern.

We have endured event cancelations due to minor clerical errors, faced extreme scrutiny when attempting to access student activity funds, and even had police details sent to our academic events.

For example, during this year’s Israeli Apartheid Week — a series of Palestine awareness-raising activities and events held each year in universities around the world — the university canceled our “mock checkpoint” demonstration less than 24 hours before it was scheduled to begin. They claimed we had not filed our forms correctly.

This increase in discrimination coincides with a smear campaign, primarily consisting of a series of videos, called “Shame on Northeastern University.” Produced by a shadowy outside organization named Americans for Peace and Tolerance (APT), the campaign claims that Northeastern supports anti-Semitism and Islamic extremism.

APT’s campaign is based on falsehoods that incorrectly conflate Palestine solidarity activism and criticism of Israeli government policies with anti-Semitism.

Northeastern has failed to release a public statement regarding the video’s accusations; however, we believe the illegitimate curtailment of SJP’s activities is their response.

Sensitive

As a university that has gained significant acclaim and recently launched an ambitious capital campaign, Northeastern is tremendously sensitive to public relations.

Although they espouse humanitarian values of global citizenship, they have succumbed to outside pressure to engage in a concerted effort to silence one of the most active student groups fighting for human rights.

However, despite these efforts, we are standing up for our rights and showing the administration that we will no longer be harassed and discriminated against. Our solidarity with the Palestinian people is stronger than ever, and we will continue to condemn the egregious violations of human rights and international law committed by Israel’s government and its military.

As we look ahead to the academic year that is about to start, we hope this inspires others to take actions against injustice on campuses across the country.

Tori Porell is an activist and student at Northeastern University.

Comments

Why don't you get Breaking the Silence. There's honesty for you.

From this article it is apparent that they agreed to a silent walk-out, and did not stick to the agreement.

Northwestern would be finding federal agents storming its doors for such an act of political intimidation.

Isn't college where one goes to learn about life, including your right to protest?

The students missed a trick. Far better to remain and use the session's Q&A to grill the soldiers.

Understand other side of the story perhaps. Asking question agree with Israel military policy or not be another important question. If Palestinian fighter come RCC or WCC I ask question of my own to them. Love all honestly to ask them some questions if I could.

A "civility statement," when it is applied to only one side, has a chilling effect on free speech and open discussion. There is a fine line between "passion" and "fanaticism," between "confrontation" and "verbal abuse". Such a requirement, when required of just one side, gives the impression the authorities expect that side to be uncivil. I find it ironic, even sad, that free and open debate occurs more often in Israel than in the West. For that, I salute the people of Israel for having the courage to allow open-minded debate.