Pressures on Universities to Discipline and Punish Students and Faculty for Speech Activities
by Dima Khalidi
Moderator Helena Cobban: Our next speaker is an exemplar, Dima Khalidi. I said this the other day, I’ve known her since she was born, and it’s my real pleasure and honor to introduce her. She’s the founder of an organization now rebranded as Palestine Legal, formerly known as Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, which Dima said is kind of a mouthful. She will tell you what they do. It’s a small organization with currently three extremely active lawyers who provide legal support in circumstances exactly similar to what Amani said. One of the things a number of their staff attorneys said is that the First Amendment has no Palestine exception. Bear that in mind.
I’ve worked in the media in this country for 35 years and I was subject, even at the Christian Science Monitor over the years, to exactly the same kind of double standard that Amani talked about at Daily Targum. If I took a trip, then who is funding the trip? It would all be extensively interrogated and I had to report it. People who were reporting stuff from Israel, nobody ever examined who was paying for their trips. That stuff goes on in the media, in the national mainstream media, all the time, and the Christian Science Monitor was among the best of them. I’m glad that you guys are here to take up the struggle and take it to new levels. Dima Khalidi.
Dima Khalidi: Hello. It’s so nice to be here in such a full room—this is lovely. I think it’s crucially important that you hear about this issue—about the way that students on campuses are affected—from students themselves or recent students themselves. You know, it’s really their experiences that exemplify what Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (Palestine Legal for short) is seeing again and again around the country, and we work nationally, so we are getting a very good sense of how widespread this problem is. There is really a concerted effort among Israel advocacy groups in the U.S. to undermine and thwart campus activism for Palestinian rights. There are dozens, dozens of national and local organizations that are contributing to this effort, and I think you’ve heard about some of them throughout the morning, and they are spending millions of dollars to mount campaigns against groups, against individuals—all intended to stop the momentum of the movement for Palestinian rights. And this has been now focused on campuses because of the energy of the student movement and because Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaigns are gaining strength,and students are spearheading a lot of those efforts, and that is a big threat to the status quo in this country and in Israel.
On the most basic level, we are dealing with efforts to curb dissent on one of the few issues that has long garnered unconditional bipartisan support in this, the nation’s capital, especially, as you all know, which is support for Israel. But such dissent is exactly what the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is designed to protect. When government officials—including public university officials, right?—dictate the limits of acceptable public discourse, they are effectively censoring viewpoints that they disagree with. And universities, in general, have been exalted by the U.S. Supreme Court as “peculiarly the ‘marketplace of ideas,’” and it has emphasized “the dependence of a free society on free universities.”
It has also repeated that free speech cannot be limited based on how uncomfortable it may make some people, because “[a] function of free speech under our system of government is to invite dispute. It may indeed best serve its high purpose when it induces a condition of unrest, creates dissatisfaction with conditions as they are, or even stirs people to anger.”
Yet Israel advocacy groups have played a central role in encouraging public and private institutions to silence and punish dissent on the Israel-Palestine issue through a number of tactics—that often rely on complaints that students who support Israel are made uncomfortable by this discourse. The dissent in question is characterized by activities such as lectures, film screenings, creative actions like mock checkpoints on campuses, mock eviction flyers being posted in dorms to give a sense of what Palestinians go through every day, and boycott and divestment campaigns, of course. These are all forms of speech that are protected from government interference by the First Amendment of the Constitution.
Palestine Legal has, since 2012, been tracking these efforts, and challenging them with legal advocacy on behalf of student activists facing backlash—like Amani, I think, showed—daily. We’re getting an enormous amount of requests for help.
I’d like to elucidate some of the trends that Palestine Legal has observed in tracking the repression of Palestine activism on campuses especially. To give you some idea of the volume of requests for legal advice and reports of repression that we’ve gotten: in 2014, we documented over 240 requests and reports of incidents (which was more than double what we documented in 2013), and about 75 percent of these originating on campuses and involved students or academics, professors, faculty or others who are under attack. And so far this year, in just over 3 months of 2015, we’ve already documented over 115 requests for help and incidents of repression, again the majority on campuses.
Some of the most prominent tactics that Palestine Legal has documented include smear campaigns, legal complaints, disparate treatment by universities, and interference in student democratic processes.
I think we’ve heard a lot about smear campaigns. Richard Falk and Alice Rothchild spoke a lot to that, as has Amani, I think. Smear campaigns include false accusations of anti-Semitism, as we know, against individuals and groups that criticize Israeli policies, and they rely on the false conflation of criticism of those policies with a hatred of Jewish people as a whole. Israel advocacy groups have long been promoting and attempting to codify a re-definition of anti-Semitism. If we listened to Alice Rothchild’s definition of anti-Semitism before, this new definition is designed to encompass anything that “delegitimizes,” applies “double standards” to or “demonizes” Israel. That can encompass anything and everything, as you can imagine. This re-definition recently appeared in student government resolutions which were passed at UC Berkeley and UCLA, as well as now in a California state resolution. While the definition has no legal basis precisely because it would undermine basic First Amendment rights to engage in political speech, it nevertheless stigmatizes those who are openly critical of Israeli policies, and increases pressure on universities to curb such criticism. So these kinds of accusations really underlie almost all the incidents that we document at Palestine Legal.
False accusations of connections with groups that are designated as “terrorist organizations” by the U.S. government are also very pervasive, especially with students. There is a particularly pernicious effort to associate Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters, of which there are dozens in schools across the United States, with Hamas, in particular, as with the “Hamas on campus” website, that I think was mentioned earlier.
Another effort has been, again ironically, named David Horowitz Freedom Center, recently posted on campuses around the country. You can see here they had “Students for Justice in Palestine” written on the top, and they depicted brutal Hamas activities against other Palestinians, and the hashtag #JewHaters at the bottom, and we saw these on campuses around the country.
The same organization, the Horowitz Freedom Center, also encouraged students to do mock hangings on campus to allegedly expose the hypocrisy of SJP and mock stonings on campus, again in reaction to SJP’s mock checkpoints on campus.
The chilling effect on academics and students is undeniable—who
wants to be branded as an anti-Semite or a terrorist just for
speaking out for Palestinian rights?
This has cost some, like Prof, Steven Salaita, their
professional careers. His tenured appointment at the University of
Illinois was terminated after the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC) and
the Jewish Federation launched a campaign in reaction to what? Tweets over the summer about the Gaza war. Some of them were
impassioned, some of them might have been offensive to some people.
But the campaign claimed that Salaita was a “baseless anti-Semite”
and that hiring him presented “a real danger to the entire campus
community, especially to its Jewish students.” The university
responded to these complaints—including threats from major donors to
pull their funding—and they refused to formalize his appointment
because of his “uncivil” tweets that they said made him unfit to
teach. So this man’s professional career has been effectively
Another common tactic that Israel advocacy groups employ at the university level is to file complaints under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. These allege that Palestine activism on campus creates a hostile environment for Jewish students—specifically those who support Israel. Complaints against universities—and even the mere threat of such complaints—put universities on the defensive. No such complaints have succeeded thus far, legally. In fact, the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, which investigates these complaints, has in fact dismissed roundly four such complaints, stating that the activities complained of were protected political speech, not harassment based on national origin or race, and that “exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.” In other words, what is college for if not to challenge students’ preconceived notions of the world before they come in to college?
Despite these strong decisions from the Department of Education, the chilling effect is deeply felt. In order to avoid such complaints and accusations, or to show that they are effectively responding to them, universities are erecting obstacles to pro-Palestinian student activism, investigating student activities, and disproportionately punishing students and student groups because of the viewpoint that they are expressing.
To give you a taste of typical bureaucratic obstacles that we are seeing, students have reported to Palestine Legal the following: administrators repeatedly calling in students to explain their events to administrators, provide scripts of their street theater performances, or give names of individuals participating in their activities; schools requiring student groups to pay for their own security at their events because of complaints or expected protests from pro-Israel groups; administrators telling students that they can’t use the word “apartheid,” literally, or can’t use the name “Students for Justice in Palestine” for their student group because it is too controversial; excessive delays in approving events, which impedes their abilities to hold events; and changes in school policies in direct response to student activities so that they can’t repeat them again.
This kind of bureaucratic harassment has a cumulative effect on students, draining their time and resources, hindering their ability to put on events, and generally acting to dissuade and distract them from their organizing work.
Now investigations and disciplinary actions also commonly result from Israel advocacy groups’ pressure on universities.
Groups like the Zionist Organization of America and the again, ironically named, Americans for Peace and Tolerance (AFPT) pressured Northeastern University for years to shut down Palestine activism on that campus. And Northeastern has obliged—first by putting the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) on probation for a brief walk-out they did of an event featuring an Israeli soldier talking about the ethics of the IDF; then by suspending the SJP chapter after they distributed mock eviction flyers in the dorms.
To understand the university’s reaction, we must understand the nature of the pressure that Northeastern has been under. AFPT first started a campaign called “Shame on NEU,” claiming that SJP was “calling for the Murder of Jews,” and “cheerleading Hamas,” among other baseless accusations. The ZOA compounded this with a threat to file a legal Title VI complaint [against Northeastern] because they claimed the university tolerated a “hostile environment” for Jewish students by employing professors that were critical of Israel and by allowing SJP to organize on campus. The ZOA made sure to copy one of its own “major supporters,” Robert Shillman, who also happened to donate $3 million to the university to build “Shillman Hall,” and whose statue also happens to adorn the campus.
One incident at Loyola University in Chicago led to blatantly
disparate disciplinary action against the SJP group there last fall.
Students learned of a tabling event publicizing Birthright Israel
trips, which was sponsored by the school’s Hillel chapter. They
learned about this the night before. Several students, mainly
Palestinian, spontaneously decided to line up at the table and try
to register in an attempt to highlight the program’s discriminatory
policies—only Jewish students are presumed to have a “Birthright” to
the land that constitutes Israel and the occupied Palestinian
territory, and they are offered free trips there. When the students
lined up and calmly asked to register for a free trip—since, after
all, their own grandparents hailed from now-destroyed villages in
present-day Israel—students manning the table immediately
complained to administrators. The university undertook a month-long
investigation, and they eventually charged SJP as a group with six
conduct violations, including “bias-motivated misconduct,”
“harassment and bullying,” and a violation of school demonstration
policies. SJP was ultimately found responsible for only 1 of the 6
charges, that of failing to register their demonstration 7 days in
advance like the school requires. But for this infraction, the group
was placed on probation for the remainder of the year and they
couldn’t access any more school funds. Meanwhile, Hillel was also
found responsible for failing to register their tabling event. Their
sanction was vastly different—they were merely required to go and
talk to administrators about what the registration policies were so
that it would be clear to them in the future.
So this kind of disparate treatment and disproportionate punishment has come to characterize university reactions to Palestine activism on campus.
This spring, especially, we’ve seen a huge number of attempts to interfere in student democratic processes, especially around divestment resolutions—the spring happens to be a very big time for those on campuses. Just to give one quick example—the University of Toledo—the Jewish Federation pressured the student government to close a hearing on a divestment initiative to all but Hillel and the SJP chapter (even though others, of course, were supporting the initiative), and the two groups were barred from the hearing room while the other one presented their side so they couldn’t hear the other's arguments. The Federation also held a closed-door session with the student government before on anti-Semitism to make that clear. Before the resolution even came to a vote, the judicial council declared that it was “unconstitutional” and “discriminatory,” and it stopped the vote from taking place.
There was an uproar from students and supporters, including a legal challenge by Palestine Legal and other attorneys, who wrote to the student government. The student government ended up allowing an open hearing, and the resolution passed, ultimately.
So what does this all mean? This doesn’t even begin to explain the depth of the problem, because we’re seeing such a huge number of cases like these that affect dozens and dozens and hundreds of individuals, students and faculty, etc. We really are witnessing a situation in which it has become impossible for students and faculty on U.S. campuses to speak out for Palestinian rights without being personally attacked, condemned as hateful and anti-Semitic, and punished by their universities in response to pressure by these Israel advocacy groups.
The incidents that we are documenting do point to an apparent “Palestine exception” to the First Amendment, a situation in which public officials find it acceptable to muzzle a certain viewpoint in order to appease a strong political constituency—and, often, big donors, of course.
In addition to the palpable effects on their direct targets, which I think Amani, Ahmad and Alice show very well, the emotional burden on people who are attacked in this way is something that is not really understood or talked about very much. These repression tactics work to restrict public debate on a critical issue and thereby help preserve the status quo on Israel-Palestine in this country. Universities, think tanks, policy makers and media outlets—if any of you are here—forsake their responsibility to address one of the most prolonged human rights issues of our time when they accede to these pressure campaigns and inhibit people from speaking, protesting and taking collective nonviolent action to effect some kind of change. Without an honest and critical public conversation about this, U.S. policy in the region will continue to enable this state of occupation and subjugation.
Really, it is precisely because students and others on university
campuses are reaching their peers, they are making connections
between social justice movements and proposing a rights-based
approach to the conflict, that Israel advocacy groups are putting
their thumbs on the scales now. They know that it is on university
campuses that the civil rights and anti-apartheid movements gained
strength, and that youth are the drivers of change. It is upon us to
ensure, ultimately, that these voices are heard, that efforts to
suppress this movement are exposed and challenged, and that we allow
discourse in this country to move beyond blind support for a
repressive regime that we ourselves are enabling.