The “Palestine exception to free speech” in US academic institutions: valuable lessons for our law school community
Human Rights Clinic Student Candy Ofime on Palestine and censorship in US universities. Today, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine is hosting an important event on the Palestine Exception to Free Speech and the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement at the law school (in JG Hall, room 102b, at 12.10pm). I encourage law students interested in learning more about this issue to attend! This post is a reflection on the silencing of advocates for Palestinian rights in US universities and its implications for our law school community.
New York, April 11, 2016—Increasing pressure and restrictions imposed around advocacy for the rights of Palestinians across US university campuses have been denounced by human rights lawyers and received unusual press coverage over the last few months. Our law school community should be vigilant to this trend, scrutinize its internal practices, and address complaints by student leaders to ensure that the pressures constraining Palestine solidarity movements in US academic spheres do not permeate our community and allow for open discussions about the rights of Palestinians on campus.
Free expression is a basic human right, and respect for free speech is one of the most fundamental tenets of university education. It is necessary for adversarial, sometimes offensive and controversial views to be protected if we want universities to be spaces fostering intellectual growth and development. While conservative forces have argued that allowing black face costumes can be essential to preserve free speech in the university context, advocacy around Palestinian rights has been treated differently. Free speech related to Palestinian rights is under threat at academic institutions, including from donors and administrators.
The pressure experienced by Palestinian rights advocates at various campuses could be brought to bear against any of the student groups advocating for Palestinian rights at Columbia Law School. As a student leader, I worry about the prospect of engaging in such an arm-wresting with our administration to respond to pressure from external funders and trustees.
Over the last few years, restraints and pressure on the voices of human rights activists supporting Palestinian rights on university campuses have sharply increased throughout the country. A joint report from the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Palestine Legal revealed as much in September 2015 by documenting the widespread and growing suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy in the United States, and particularly on college campuses. Palestine Legal, a civil society organization created in 2012 to protect the civil and constitutional rights of advocates of Palestinian freedom in the United States, reported that “between January 2014 and June 2015, [it] responded to nearly 300 incidents of suppression; 85% of those incidents targeted students and professors, on a total of more than 65 US college campuses.” As evident in this short video, students and scholars have faced backlash, censorship, and punishment when they express solidarity with the Palestinian rights movements.
The report sheds light on attacks on academics and students dating back to the early 2000s, and that have targeted Columbia professors in the past, including Professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history, Joseph Massad.
The monitoring of Palestinian rights activism has translated into more controversial actions by university administrations, as demonstrated by the dismissal of Professor Steven Salaita. In August 2015, Salaita’s appointment as tenured faculty was blocked by trustees of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) and this decision was endorsed by its director after Salaita posted tweets condemning the Israeli assault on Gaza during Operation Protective Edge in July 2014. In response, Salaita (represented by lawyers from CCR) sued UIUC’s board of trustees and high-level administrators for violating his First Amendment right to free speech and for breach of contract. The case settled last November and UIUC agreed to pay Salaita $850,000 if he released his claim. Salaita’s “uncivil tweets case” highlighted the pressure on university administrators to respond to academic speech perceived as too critical of Israeli government policies, and galvanized the movement for Palestine solidarity by fostering an increasing number of student activist demonstrations on campuses and new endorsements of an academic boycott against Israel.
International tribunals and intergovernmental organizations have thoroughly documented and condemned violations of international human rights law (IHRL) and international humanitarian law (IHL) perpetrated by the State of Israel. Authorities in the field of international law have critiqued, and UN fact-finding missions have investigated, the illegality of Israeli settlements eroding Palestinian lands, the annexation of East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights, the current means of administration of Area C, and violations of the laws of war over the last assaults of Gaza. Yet, Israel’s human rights record has become a challenging topic to discuss, even for human rights advocates who wish to raise awareness about Palestinian rights, including in academic settings.
This climate of pressure and censorship in US universities reflects broader trends in the country. Indeed, a growing number of States are considering imposing bans on calls for boycotts against Israeli products and institutions (see for example the Illinois anti-BDS legislation). The ramifications of such restrictions on university campuses is highly alarming.
It is our responsibility as students, faculty, staff, and administrators to stay alert and engage in a genuine conversation about how these dynamics play out on our own campus. Earlier this year, Harvard Law School (HLS) student leaders experienced backlash for speech in defense of Palestinian rights. After funds given by the law firm Milbank to HLS for the purpose of funding student events were used by HLS Justice for Palestine student group to organize an event on, ironically, the Palestinian exception to free speech, Milbank asked HLS to no longer use the donation for student events. The message this sent to students was that corporate donations and event funding might be at risk if speech was considered “too controversial” by a firm.
What can students at CLS do? First, students should form strong links with faculty. The work and continuous activism of some of our faculty members such as Katherine Franke is a great source of inspiration for me and a lot of other students at CLS. Second, I encourage students interested in learning more about Palestine to explore the work of Columbia’s Center for Palestine Studies, and to active student groups on campus such as Columbia SJP. Third, for current and prospective Palestinian rights student activists who feel censored and pressured on campus, I recommend Palestine Legal’s Know Your Rights handbook.