Students fight university sanctions after protesting Israeli soldiers

Students at UC Irvine are facing relentless efforts to stifle their free speech on Palestine. (via Facebook)

Students are fighting back against a series of sanctions imposed on them by the University of California, Irvine (UCI) as punishment for chanting and clapping during a campus event with Israeli soldiers in May.

Administrators launched an investigation into Students for Justice in Palestine following the protest, even though members of the group say that they were the ones who endured days of harassment, including sexual slurs and racist intimidation, by the Israeli soldiers who were invited to give a talk about the Israeli army.

The students believe the harassment was an attempt to provoke a reaction.

In late August, UCI found the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine responsible for “disruption” and sanctioned the group with two years of probation, 12 mandatory meetings with a dean to discuss free speech, and a requirement to meet with university officials two weeks before hosting or co-hosting an event, according to Palestine Legal.

In those pre-event meetings, students will be expected to discuss how SJP is allowed to respond and will be mandated to review the university’s protocols and policies.

The students filed an appeal against the university’s sanctions on 31 August.

Cyberbullying and death threats

“It’s outrageous that the university is punishing us, students, instead of protecting us from aggressive foreign military agents on campus,” said Daniel Carnie, a student who was amongst those targeted by the Israeli soldiers.

In addition to asking the Israeli soldiers critical questions, Carnie said, the students “started chanting in response to a member of the soldiers’ group lunging toward a Palestinian student, waving her hands, screaming and shoving another student before being physically restrained.”

“We were scared, and the administrators did not intervene, so we spontaneously erupted in a chant. We are appealing this unfair decision,” Carnie added.

Following the protest, students say they have faced cyberbullying, including death threats, harassment over social media and a website that lists students’ names, phone numbers and personal addresses with sniper targets on their faces, reports Palestine Legal.

The university has so far ignored such threats against the students, as well as the harassment by the Israeli soldiers leading up to the May event, the legal group adds.

“Pursue prosecution”

UC Irvine has been a focal point for Israel advocacy groups seeking to categorize support for Palestinian rights as anti-Semitic.

Documents obtained by Palestine Legal through a freedom of information request show that over the last year, Israel advocacy organizations have consistently pressured the UC Irvine administration to crack down on Palestine activism.

In early July, a letter authored by the Louis D. Brandeis Center, a right-wing Zionist lawfare group, along with two Israel lobby groups, Students Supporting Israel and StandWithUs, was sent to UCI officials pressuring the university to “pursue the prosecution” of the protesters and “discipline” SJP.

The letter, seen by The Electronic Intifada, urges the university to criminalize the protesters under California Penal Code 403, which describes the breaking up of an event as a misdemeanor – a law which was used to investigate, prosecute and convict students in 2011 who protested a speech by Israel’s then ambassador to the US, Michael Oren.

The students, known as the Irvine 11, were subjected to a year-long criminal investigation, and a jury trial resulting in a guilty verdict.

“Serious escalation”

“At UCI, this is just the latest episode in an ongoing history of draconian administrative and criminal responses to what should be protected political speech,” Liz Jackson of Palestine Legal told The Electronic Intifada. “In that sense, this is nothing new.”

However Jackson explained that UCI’s punishment of students in this way is “a serious escalation” of events over the last two years in which the university has expanded its definition of “punishable disruption.”

Last year, the administration punished SJP “for being too loud in a protest that occurred outside an event,” Jackson said.

“This year, they are punishing students for clapping and chanting spontaneously – and that chanting happened only after a physical assault occurred in the room,” she noted.

Jackson added that the students not being allowed to “clap in unison” or be “too loud” in speaking is an expansion of the definition of punishable disruption, “and that’s violating students’ First Amendment rights in that the university doesn’t like the viewpoint of their speech.”

Jackson pointed out the hypocrisy of lecturing students on free speech “in the same breath that the university is violating students’ First Amendment rights by punishing them for using their free speech.”

Levying these serious bureaucratic sanctions against SJP sets the group up to fail and acquiesces to Israel lobby groups that are demanding that UCI ban the group, Jackson said.

“They didn’t outright suspend SJP as a club or take away its club status, but instead they gave them a bureaucratic requirement that is extremely difficult to meet, for anyone,” she said.

“And then [SJP faces] the looming consequence that if they don’t comply with the sanctions, they will face further increased sanctions. So it appears to be a clear step in the direction of banning SJP.”

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Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).