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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Campus crackdowns have chilling effect on pro-Palestinian speech

College Hall, where offices for the University of Pennsylvania’s president are located, on the campus in Philadelphia, Dec. 14, 2023. As Israel’s war with Hamas rages in the Gaza Strip, universities are under tremendous pressure to stamp out antisemitism, but the measures taken, some say, are going too far, causing fear and curbing free expression. (Rachel Wisniewski/The New York Times)

By Vimal Patel and Anna Betts

At the University of Pennsylvania, approval for the screening of a documentary critical of Israel was denied.

At Brandeis University — which expressed a public commitment to free speech — a pro-Palestinian student group was barred for statements made by its national chapter.

At the University of Vermont, a Palestinian poet was set to deliver a talk, but the school pulled the meeting space after students complained he was antisemitic.

There are growing signs that colleges are starting to clamp down on pro-Palestinian protests and events on campus, as the institutions face pressure from donors, alumni and politicians, who are furious over what they say is an antisemitic campaign against Jews.

Some schools have simply canceled events or delayed them. A handful of schools have shut down student groups and disciplined students. Some students have simply stopped participating in protests, concerned for their own safety, spooked by alumni who have started do-not-hire lists and outside groups that have doxxed students.

The war in the Middle East is laying bare the difficulties American universities are confronting in navigating free expression. Already under attack in recent years from conservatives for closing off debate on other topics, university leaders are now struggling to balance open expression with fears and complaints from some Jewish students that the language of pro-Palestinian protest calls for violence against them.

As video of some protests went viral, with some devolving into physical altercations, university officials have been under more and more pressure to find a way to contain the demonstrations.

Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal, a civil rights group, said her organization has received more than 450 requests for help for campus-related cases since the Hamas attack, more than a tenfold increase from the same period last year. The cases include students who have had scholarships revoked or been doxxed, professors who have been disciplined, and administrators who have gotten pressured by trustees.

“It’s truly like nothing else we’ve ever seen before,” Sainath said. “We’re having a ’60s-level moment here, both as far as the repression but also the mass student mobilization.”

In the past few months, the most prominent pro-Palestinian campus group, Students for Justice in Palestine, has been suspended from at least four universities, including Columbia, Brandeis, George Washington and Rutgers. In some cases, the universities accused the group of being supportive of Hamas, disrupting classes and intimidating other students.

The group, a loosely connected network of autonomous chapters founded about 30 years ago, has denied those allegations.

“These suspensions are a dangerous escalation of the repressive measures administrators have been taking to characterize anti-Zionist student organizers as a violent and existential threat,” the national Students for Justice in Palestine group said in a statement, adding that administrators “have crafted the infrastructure for mass repression, censorship and intellectual manipulation.”

In Florida, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida wrote a letter in late October to school presidents that chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in the state must be “deactivated” — an order civil rights groups say clearly violates the First Amendment.

School leaders are in a tough position, said Burt Neuborne, a New York University law professor and founding legal director of the Brennan Center for Justice. Universities, he said, “will pay a price in intellectual openness if they are unduly restrictive in speech that they allow on their campuses,” but “on the other hand, you’ve got traumatized and frightened young people; you don’t want to ignore them.”

Administrators at the University of Vermont canceled an in-person event in late October featuring Palestinian poet Mohammed el-Kurd, after some students said he was antisemitic. El-Kurd could not be reached for comment.

The Anti-Defamation League, which tracks antisemitism, describes el-Kurd on its website as displaying a “troubling pattern of rhetoric and slander that ranges far beyond reasoned criticism of Israel.”

Lecture organizers rejected the charges of antisemitism. “The conflation of critics of Israel and anti-Zionism with antisemitism is false and used to curb academic freedom,” said Helen Scott, a professor involved in planning the event, adding that many of the lecture series board members are Jewish.

The university cited security reasons, but a university lawyer later acknowledged to faculty there were no threats to the venue or speaker, according to a video reviewed by The New York Times. The event was held online instead. University officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

“This is a climate where it’s OK to cancel a talk at the last minute by a prominent Palestinian poet,” said Scott, noting that three students of Palestinian descent who attended other colleges were shot in town last month. (Officials arrested a 48-year-old man in the shooting and were investigating whether it was a hate crime.) “What message does that send?”

William Youmans, an associate professor at George Washington University, where administrators this semester suspended the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, said that while university officials’ tactics were sometimes chilling student activism, pressure from external forces — with doxxings and warnings to potential employers — were having greater consequences.

“In many ways, I feel like that strategy is a bit more effective at actually silencing,” said Youmans, who was a member of the SJP chapter at the University of California, Berkeley, in the early 2000s. “If administrators suppress speech, it backfires because they’re so clearly not supposed to be doing that.”

But Youmans said the responses of universities still had consequences.

“Some of this is to signal, ‘Hey, we’re doing stuff,’” Youmans said. “The easiest thing to do is put out statements that please donors.” But, he added, “Of course, a lot of those have the informal effect of stigmatizing kinds of groups, stigmatizing kinds of speech.”

Scholars studying and writing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have always walked delicately, but the environment has deteriorated since Oct. 7, according to a biannual survey carried out last month. The survey, from the University of Maryland and George Washington University, found that 66% of respondents reported self-censoring on the Middle East in general, up from 57% in the fall of 2022.

Chisato Kimura, a 23-year-old-law student at Yale who is a member of Yalies4Palestine, said she has not been deterred and would continue to protest on behalf of Palestinians.

She said schools talk a lot about diversity “and love to plaster our faces on posters and promotional material” but need to accept that “if you have diverse faces on campuses, you’re also going to have diverse voices and opinion.”

At Harvard, an undergraduate student organizer with the school’s Palestine Solidarity Committee said students were worried about the consequences of speaking out for Palestinians. She did not want to be named out of fear for her physical safety and possible repercussions at the college. Worries over being disciplined by her school cause some students to think twice about speaking openly about their views in class, she said.

But ultimately, the student said, given the brutal deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza, she feels there is no choice but to continue to protest and speak out on campus, whatever the consequences. The stakes in Gaza, she said, “are too great to be silent in a moment like this one.”

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