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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Barnard College’s restrictions on political speech prompt outcry



Students protest for Palestinians on the Barnard College campus in New York, on Nov. 15, 2023. Professors and free speech advocates are protesting a decision by Barnard College to monitor and remove pro-Palestinian statements and other speech the college deems too political. (Bing Guan/The New York Times)

By Sharon Otterman


Three weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks on Israel, the Department of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies at Barnard College in New York posted a statement on its departmental website in support of the Palestinian people.


Below the statement, the professors posted links to academic work supporting their view that the struggle of Palestinians against “settler colonial war, occupation and apartheid” was also a feminist issue. Two days later, they found that section of the webpage had been removed, without warning, by Barnard administrators.


What happened next has sparked a crisis over academic freedom and free expression at Barnard at a time when the Israel-Hamas conflict has led to tense protests on American college campuses and heated discussions about what constitutes acceptable speech.


Asked to explain why the page was removed, college administrators told the department that the statement and links were “impermissible political speech,” a statement from the department said.

The Barnard administration then, in late October and November, rewrote its policies on political activity, website governance and campus events, giving itself wide latitude to decide what was and was not permissible political speech on campus, as well as final say over everything posted on Barnard’s website.


The moves caught the attention of the New York Civil Liberties Union, which wrote a letter to Barnard’s new president, Laura Rosenbury, in December, warning that the website and political speech policies violated fundamental free speech principles and were “incompatible with a sound understanding of academic freedom.”


“Such a regime will inevitably serve as a license for censorship,” the letter said.


In a statement, the Barnard administration said that it had barred college resources from being used for political activity for at least a decade. Another policy barring political signs from being posted on campus was not directed at any ideology, it contended.


“Barnard supports the academic freedom of our faculty and the free expression of our faculty and students,” Kathryn Gerlach, a Barnard spokesperson, said in an email.


Janet Jakobsen, a professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, said that the removal of her department’s pro-Palestinian material was only one of the new challenges to free expression that students and faculty were experiencing.


Faculty members who have posted pro-Palestinian signs on their office doors have been asked to remove them or put them inside, she and other faculty said. And about two dozen students who attended a peaceful, but unauthorized, pro-Palestinian campus protest in December have been summoned to appear before a college disciplinary committee.


“The purpose of academic freedom and free expression is precisely to contribute to democratic discussion,” Jakobsen said. “And so to treat our students as if their participation in participatory democracy is so deeply dangerous, that a demonstration at which there is no disruption should be disciplined, is a very strong statement.”


Since the Oct. 7 attacks, administrators have been facing pressure from some donors, alumni and students and faculty to limit some pro-Palestinian speech on the grounds that opposing Zionism or the state of Israel can veer into antisemitism and can make those who support Israel feel uncomfortable.


Colleges often defend the measures as necessary for security and to create a calmer environment. (During a pro-Palestinian demonstration at Columbia last Friday, for example, some Barnard and Columbia students said someone sprayed them with a foul-smelling chemical, and several sought medical treatment after.)


At both Columbia and Barnard, an all-women’s college that is formally part of Columbia University but has its own leadership and policies, administrators have asked the community to refrain from slogans and words that others may find hurtful. Both institutions have also issued reworded administrative rules that officially apply to everyone. But critics say that in reality, they are being used to curtail views the college does not want aired.


Under new rules Barnard emailed to faculty Nov. 6, for example, all academic departments must submit changes to the content of their websites to the Office of the Provost for review and approval. All content on the college’s website may be amended or removed without notice, a related policy states.


Arthur Eisenberg, executive counsel with the NYCLU, said that the policy gives the administration discretion to determine what is permissible academic discourse on the website. “And that’s the problem,” he said.


While the pro-Palestinian statement was taken down, for example, a statement by the Africana Studies Department decrying anti-Black racism and state-sanctioned violence in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in 2020 was permitted to stay up.


Barnard also issued a policy Nov. 13 defining political activity in a way that many faculty members say was broader than previously understood. Rather than just barring partisan activity like rallies from campus, the policy now defines it as “all written communications that comment on specific actions, statements, or positions taken by public officials or governmental bodies at local, state, federal, and international levels.”


Faculty can make such statements so long as they make clear they are speaking for themselves but not the college. But political statements cannot be posted on the Barnard website without approval, and “no member of the college may post signs containing political statements” on the college grounds.


A newly articulated events policy also requires that 28 days’ notice must be given before most public demonstrations on campus are held.


In response to the administration’s actions, more than 1,000 Columbia and Barnard faculty, students and alumni have signed a letter saying that academic freedom is under attack at Barnard. More than 100 Barnard faculty members also signed a letter sent to Rosenbury on Sunday expressing concern over the recent summoning of roughly 20 students to “inquiry meetings” about accusations that they violated the code of conduct.


A new group, Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine, published a letter on the school newspaper’s website Monday, pledging to “take back” Barnard and Columbia. The letter said the group would fight efforts to “curtail speech that is critical of the actions taken by the State of Israel, that sympathizes with Palestinians, or that attempts to place the current conflict in a longer historical context.”


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