Students for Justice in Palestine at New Jersey’s Montclair State University is expressing relief after sanctions ordering the campus group not to disseminate “political propaganda” about Palestine were lifted.
The group had been fined by the student government and threatened with losing its recognized status after members distributed an informational leaflet about Palestine.
SJP President Sereen Tartir had said the ban violated the group’s First Amendment rights and welcomed its reversal.
“I’m glad that they reversed their sanctions but up to this point, we don’t know what made them so quick to sanction us to begin with,” Tartir told The Electronic Intifada.
“My colleagues and I are going to confront the student government to find out why this happened.”
The decision to reverse the ban on SJP’s political activities also came after the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE), a group that defends free speech rights on campus, had weighed in.
FIRE had suggested it would take legal action if the university did not step in to overrule the student government’s unconstitutional attempt to censor SJP.
Tartir learned the sanctions were lifted in a letter from Student Government Association (SGA) President Kristen M. Bunk this morning.
“Upon examination of this matter, and after discussion with the SGA’s legal counsel, we believe that there is an insufficient basis to sanction SJP in such a degree for distribution of the subject pamphlet,” the letter states.
As such, Bunk said, all the sanctions had been “rescinded.”
“The SGA recognize that persons and organizations on the University’s campus have the right to express their views and that those who disagree with those views have a right to express their contrary views,” Bunk’s letter adds.
In a statement emailed to The Electronic Intifada, the university said that it “is satisfied that the SGA has reached an appropriate resolution to this issue.”
“Offensive political wording”
This latest attempt to stifle speech about Palestine began last month.
On 22 September, members of SJP set up an information table at the campus student center that was “approved by the Center For Student Involvement,” SJP President Tartir told The Electronic Intifada.
She said that this semester “is the first time an SJP has ever been present on Montclair State University grounds” as previous requests for recognition “had been denied.”
“We distributed informational brochures to students and faculty, who all requested a brochure themselves, so no brochure was forced upon any individual,” Tartir said. “The brochure briefly explained the ongoing situation within the region between the Israelis and Palestinians.”
A copy of the brochure is below.
Then, on 25 September, SJP received a sanction letter (see below) from the Student Government Association’s Attorney General Demi Washington stating:
“I received a complaint from Montclair State University students and faculty regarding a recent pamphlet that was distributed in the Student Center from your organization that contained offensive political wording in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian War.”
Washington did not elaborate on what was supposedly “offensive.”
Alleging that the brochure did not “include the proper stamping,” Washington added, “Must I remind you, you are a cultural organization and not a political one.”
The Student Government Association operates as an independent, tax-exempt non-profit group, known as a “501(c)(3)” organization – after the relevant section of the US Internal Revenue Code.
Such organizations are limited by law from spending more than a certain proportion of their tax-exempt funds on federal political lobbying and election campaign activities. But there is no prohibition on them or individuals associated with them expressing opinions on any matter.
Nonetheless, Washington’s letter alleges that SJP’s brochure would endanger the Student Government Association’s tax-exempt status and “bankrupt the organization.”
“Montclair State is a university that unites students regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, nationality, gender or sexual preference,” Washington’s letter says. “We do not take positions in political issues.”
“Because you violated these governing rules,” Washington writes, she decided to impose “sanctions” on SJP which include an order to “cease and desist” from “political propaganda.”
She fined the organization five percent of its budget for the semester.
“Failure to comply with these sanctions or if this matter is revisited again your organization WILL be dechartered,” she warned.
Washington could not be reached for comment.
“Your sanctioning of SJP based on SJP’s political speech is a clear violation of our First Amendment rights,” SJP’s Tartir wrote in a response to Washington, demanding that the sanctions be lifted.
Tartir noted that SJP was given no opportunity to respond to the “complaints” against the brochure.
Tartir added that the university itself has taken a political position on the question of Palestine; in January, university president Susan A. Cole issued a statement “Against the Boycott of Israeli Universities.”
FIRE steps in
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) (thefire.org), a nonpartisan group that advocates for free speech rights on campus, sent a letter to President Cole on 3 October (see below) advising her that the “sanctions and censorship demands imposed by Washington are grossly unconstitutional and must be reversed.”
“It has long been settled that the First Amendment applies with full force on public university campuses,” the letter, signed by legal and advocacy officer Ari Z. Cohn, states.
Cohn’s letter gives a detailed recital of the Supreme Court rulings protecting free speech rights.
Cohn argues that Washington’s claims that the ban was “warranted due to the tax-exempt status” of the Student Government Association “is utterly without merit.”
“More likely,” Cohn writes, is that SJP’s “speech was sanctioned because it caused offense to some members of the MSU [Montclair State University] community. But the principle of freedom of speech does not exist to protect only non-controversial speech; it exists precisely to protect speech that some members of a community may find controversial, offensive, or disrespectful.”
“If the [Student Government Association] is unwilling to comply with its constitutional obligations as an agent of MSU, the university is obligated to step in to uphold the First Amendment rights of its students,” Cohn writes.
If the sanctions against SJP and prohibitions on political speech are not “withdrawn immediately,” he warned, “FIRE is committed to using all of the resources at our disposal to see this matter through to a just conclusion.”
Politics is permitted
“The misconception that student groups are not allowed to take political stances or participate in political activities due to the tax-exempt status of their university (or the student government) is perplexing and stubbornly persistent,” Cohn told The Electronic Intifada in an email.
He noted that the “Internal Revenue Service has been equally clear that students and student organizations are presumed to speak for themselves, and may do so for even expressly partisan activity.”
“The fact that student fees, collected for the purpose of creating a forum for expressive activities and distributed on a viewpoint-neutral basis, might go to some groups with a political agenda has no bearing on the college’s tax-exempt status,” he added.
Many universities have chapters of the College Democrats and College Republicans on campus, a fact that makes it “very difficult to imagine how anyone can conclude that SJP’s pamphlet containing its broad views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could possibly jeopardize MSU’s or the SGA’s tax-exempt status,” Cohn added.
“It’s unclear whether this incident occurred due to the SGA’s misunderstanding of its own legal obligations, or because of complaints about the content of SJP’s pamphlet,” Cohn said.
The incident at Montclair State comes amid a nationwide crackdown on Palestine-related speech and advocacy – often under the guise of calls for “civility” or protecting the feelings of students.
SJP’s Tartir expressed her own group’s determination not to allow their views to be censored ever again.
“We want to let them know that we are on campus,” she said of those who tried to silence her group, “and we’re going to continue to educate about what’s going on in Palestine, and we don’t want this to happen again. Justice always prevails.”