Universities that censor speech on Palestine pose as champions of protest

Students from the Washington, DC, area walk out of class on 21 February to demand gun control legislation at a gathering outside the White House. The student movement across the US was started following a rampage in a Florida high school that left 17 killed by a former student armed with an AR-15 rifle.

Erin Scott Polaris

Last week, students at the University of Virginia protested during a campus event featuring a group of Israeli soldiers.

The soldiers were part of Reservists on Duty, an organization that aims to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement for Palestinian rights on US college campuses.

They were brought to campus by Israel-aligned groups in order to “humanize the conflict” – in other words, to distract from Israel’s human rights abuses and help brand the Israeli military as “the most moral army in the world.”

Protesters held signs and chanted slogans including, “Fight the power, turn the tide, end Israeli apartheid.”

Following their action in solidarity with Palestinians living under Israeli military rule, the University of Virginia’s dean of students Allen Groves accused the protesters of violating univerisity rules and hampering free speech.

In a campus-wide email, Groves claimed that the protest “runs counter to our important shared values of respect and intellectual inquiry, and should be firmly rejected.”

He suggested instead that the protesters should “engage in dialogue” with soldiers whose task it is to enforce – often with lethal violence – and whitewash a brutal decades-long military occupation that denies millions of Palestinians their most fundamental rights, including the rights to free speech, education and life itself.

Defending the protest, student organizers criticized the administration’s reaction, saying that the dean “presented a certain group of students robbing another group of students of their right to free speech, categorically demoting protest below a vague idea of engagement.”

“Your letter presumed to establish a ‘good’ and a ‘bad’ side by invoking a ‘right’ and a ‘wrong’ way to engage in the issue of political violence, all in the name of an ostensibly neutral commitment to ‘free and open dialogue,’” the students wrote.

Last year, the administration allowed white supremacists to rally on campus.

Hundreds of fascists marched with lit torches, chanting anti-Semitic and Nazi slogans and violence broke out on the streets of Charlottesville, culminating in a vehicular attack that left anti-racism activist Heather Heyer dead.

One of the white supremacists has been charged in the attack.

In recent days, the University of Virginia’s admissions office appealed to high school students across the US who are currently engaged in walk-outs and demonstrations against the US gun lobby.

“We seek students who fight for what they believe in and strive for justice, equality and peace,” the university tweeted to prospective students who have been spurred to action by the latest mass shooting that killed 17 students and teachers at a high school in Parkland, Florida.

“Of course we will not penalize students for their participation in these peaceful civic protests,” the university added.

Dozens of other universities made similar statements.

These appeals did not go unnoticed by student activists and academics who have been challenging the repressive policies of many universities for years, especially against anti-racism activists and Palestine solidarity groups.

Angus Johnston, a historian of student activism, wrote on Twitter that it was “far better for colleges to stick to anodyne statements of support for free expression than to try to distinguish between the kinds of protests that will and won’t harm your admissions chances.”

Incentives to suppress protests

Johnston said that Brown University’s statement that “peaceful, responsible protests” wouldn’t hurt admissions chances actually exerts “a chilling effect on activism among high schoolers who haven’t even applied for admission yet. That’s wild.”

Such statements are coded declarations of university-approved ways to protest that incentivize “punitively-inclined school administrators to portray protesters as disruptive and aggressive,” Johnston added.

Universities are essentially telling students to make sure their protests fit within the margins of what they define as acceptable or be prepared to face the consequences.

Fordham University, for example, tweeted that it “stands with current Fordham students who demonstrate against this horrific violence,” adding that “participation in peaceful demonstrations will have no adverse effect on admissions decisions.”

But this is the height of hypocrisy from a university that has gone further than almost any other in repressing its own students’ free speech.

A year ago, the Fordham administration charged a student for violating the university’s demonstration policy and summoned her to a closed-door meeting to determine her punishment for helping organize a rally in support of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

More than 100 faculty signed a petition in support of the student, stating that her actions were “consistent with the educational values that we hold most dear at Fordham,” which is to foster students “who find themselves, now and in the future, deeply bothered by injustice.”

The students had been protesting the dean’s unilateral ban on the formation of an SJP group on campus over claims that it would “encourage disruptive conduct” and contradict the college’s values of “civility.”

Fordham students are now suing the university, seeking a court order that would allow them to form a Students for Justice in Palestine group.

And for the second year in a row, Fordham has been ranked by FIRE, a free speech watchdog, as one of the country’s 10 worst universities for free speech because of its continued repression of Palestine rights advocates who wish to organize against Israel’s horrific violence.

University of California administrations are also sending prospective students coded messages of what kind of protest is acceptable, while posing – falsely – as champions of free speech.

These include UC Berkeley, which censored a student-run course on Palestine in 2016; UC Irvine, which helped prosecute Palestinian students over a 2010 protest of then-Israeli ambassador Michael Oren, and in 2017 sanctioned other students over a protest of an event with Israeli soldiers; and UC Davis, whose administration has allowed campus police to pepper-spray student protesters, ignored attacks on Arab and Muslim students and chastised student BDS campaigners.

Northeastern University, which suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine group in 2014 over its members’ nonviolent direct action of distributing mock eviction leaflets to raise awareness about Israel’s destruction of Palestinian homes, reassured prospective students last week “that disciplinary actions associated with participation in peaceful protests will not jeopardize your admission.”

So did New York University, Barnard College and Pitzer College, which have all punished students or attempted to repress campus Palestine rights organizing in the past.

A Twitter user pointed out the University of Chicago’s hypocrisy in its support of high schoolers’ “free expression” by recalling several instances of the administration repressing and arresting protesters – including the arrest of a high school student by campus police during a demonstration demanding the university open an adult trauma care center on the city’s South Side.

In 2009, the same university attempted to censor media coverage and potential protest or dissent against visiting speaker Ehud Olmert, who had the previous year, when he was Israeli prime minister, ordered a brutal assault on Gaza.

And Loyola University in Chicago joined the sanctimonious chorus, even though last week campus police assaulted a Black student protester while the university’s assistant dean of students apparently looked on and did not intervene.

In 2015, following a rally in solidarity with racial justice protests at the University of Missouri, Loyola charged three of the protest’s organizers – all Black students – with violating its demonstration policy. All three were also members of Students for Justice in Palestine.

So how do dozens of top US universities reconcile their claims to support high schoolers protests while they set police and administrators on their own students who are fighting for human rights and an end to racist violence?

“There’s one thing you should hear, and the pundits and politicians now exploiting your rage won’t say it,” scholar Steven Salaita stated in a Facebook post addressed to the protesting high schoolers.

“You know those universities proudly announcing that they won’t base admissions decisions on whatever punishment you receive for protesting? They’re full of shit,” Salaita said. “They appear supportive, even impressed, but they’re concerned with brand management, not your well-being. And their support is conditional.”

Salaita knows something about censorship: he was notoriously fired by the University of Illinois and effectively blacklisted from academia for his public condemnation of Israel’s attacks on Gaza in 2014.

The moment students’ actions “exceed what is prescribed by the mainstream – if, say, you decide to connect school violence to police brutality or point out that moneyed interests dictate all political decisions – you’ll quickly be transformed from an avatar of civic virtue into an object requiring suppression,” Salaita added.

Students deserve better, according to Salaita, “than opportunistic interventions from cynical allies implicated in the same kind of corruption as the gun lobby you rightly detest.”


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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).