The Invisible Students: How Campus Activists for Palestine Face Censorship

 

 

By Julia Rapp,  11 December, 2017

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Pro-Palestine Rally in DC. Source: Getty Images

College campuses have been epicenters for news reporting on freedom of speech crises. From incidents at protests at UC Berkeley when a student group invited conservative, former-Breitbart writer who is often referred to as white supremacist, Milo Yiannapoulos to speak on campus to College Republicans at Illinois University filing suit against their school, this issue of freedom of speech and right to assemble have been at a constant game of tug-of-war between liberals and conservatives, as well as left-wingers and right-wingers alike.

In recent years, a milieu of conservative groups has often expressed dissatisfaction over their perceived lack of free speech on college campuses.

However, a survey conducted by Gallup in collaboration with the Knight Foundation and the Newseum Institute that interviewed a sample of US college students, adults and Muslims found that out of 3,072 of the US college student respondents were more positive compared to older age groups not attending  college about the security of their first amendment rights. 81 percent of the college student sample group said that they felt “very secure” about freedom of press however only 66 percent responded that they felt very secure towards the freedom to assemble peacefully.

But despite the perceived lack of freedom of speech by conservatives, who are the other students who are feeling silenced by their universities?

Sapphira Lurie was a Senior at Fordham University in 2016 when them and a group of activists tried to establish a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

According to them, the original club paperwork for approval was submitted at least a year before the fall semester of 2016.

“The administration had just basically ignored the students and kind of put it off, where usually it takes a semester to a full year to start the club”, they said “They didn’t even respond to the initial request for several months and had to be reminded that it existed.”

Lurie joined the unofficial club in September of last year and in November the Fordham Student Government approved them. However, right before the university’s winter break, The Dean of Students Keith Eldredge emailed the group telling them that he would “veto” the constitution according to Lurie.

“So basically we couldn’t form our club,” they said.

According to Lurie, the reason why the Dean of Students refused approval was because the issue was considered divisive. According to Bob Howe, the Assistant Vice President for Communications at Fordham University said in an email that the Dean is unable to comment on this case due to it currently being in litigation.

“I don’t see what separates our divisiveness from any other political club,” Lurie said.

Regardless of their club status,  the Fordham SJP decided to hold a protest early in the spring semester as a response to Eldredge’s decision.  As a result, a couple of the students, including Lurie were sanctioned.

The  Fordham University Student Handbook  says that a sanction is when a student is “found responsible for violating a University rule under either the Student Code of Conduct Process or the Residence Halls Conduct Process”. This could include expulsion, suspension , university disciplinary probation, group probation, residential life probation, student life probation, reprimand or restitution.

As a result, Lurie was required to attend disciplinary hearings due to the organized student protests.

Lurie’s sanction was light and was only given a warning. Before their hearings a petition was passed around by professors from Fordham and other universities to drop the charges and around 120 faculty members signed it according to Lurie, who said that many of whom attended their meetings.

According to Palestine Legal, the reason that the Dean sanctioned Lurie was that they “organized a protest that ‘is considered a demonstration event and [they] did not meet with [the Dean] to coordinate the planned event.’”

Lurie says that  the Dean made a complaint against Lurie to himself. He was also the only person who could be his hearing officer.

Regardless, there were many students who still supported the unofficial SJP group at Fordham. However, Lurie acknowledged the setbacks, “There were a lot of students who were scared to be supportive of us,” they said.

Therefore, Lurie did not face any severe punishments and was able to graduate in 2017.

“It was really embarrassing for the university to make a huge deal about someone just standing there with a bullhorn,” Lurie said.

Lurie sees what happened to them as “An example of the Palestine exception to free speech.”

“The whole free speech thing is pretty interesting,” Sofia Dadap, a Senior at Fordham University and member of SJP said.

Dadap considers Fordham as a university that is  offering selective protections of free speech. She gave an example of a time when Republican political consultant, strategists and lobbyist Roger Stone spoke on campus and the university allowed this to happen.

“He’s a fascist collaborator and they were interested in making sure they had a platform for him,” she said.

Dadap also mentioned how the school has a club that is against abortion called Respect for Life. “The university has been protecting their free speech,” she said, “They have a really selective enforcement of their protection of free speech.”

Because SJP is not an official organization at Fordham, they face many barriers. The students who are members are unable to flier on campus because they cannot get their fliers approved.

According to Dadap, many students dropped out because they were afraid of getting in trouble and becoming public on a website called Canary Mission, that is dedicated to publishing photos and information on Pro-Palestine activists in an attempt is to what they believe is dedicated to fighting against anti-Semitism.

“Personally for me I feel frustrated that it had come to this lawsuit,” Dadap said , “They don’t have respect for us.”

Dadap felt that as if the university’s actions against SJP were an attempt to portray them as aggressive, further alienating students who were scared of becoming publicly identified by outside people.

Many members of the opposition would often accuse the group of anti-Semitism. Dadap also recalls one incident in which one student who was Jewish was “shouted down” by other students who told her that she “didn’t deserve to be Jewish.”

However, SJP says that their original goal  is to educate the Fordham community on Palestine through talking about policies.

Palestine Legal is an independent organization dedicated to providing legal and civil protections for Pro-Palestine activists.

Palestine Legal responded to 258 incidents in 2016 according to their Year-In-Review report where 88 percent of the incidents involved students and scholars. According to their website, the incidents included “baseless lawsuits, administrative disciplinary actions, outright censorship, and false accusations of terrorism and antisemitism.”

One of the incidents they responded to was the Fordham incident. According to their website, students filed a lawsuit against the university in April of 2017 with representation by Palestine Legal and The Center for Constitutional Rights.

Kei Pritsker is an activist from George Washington University who also deals with accusations of anti-Semitism as well as operating under a culture of fear. According to Pritsker, the campus at GWU is Pro-Israel which he finds can make the topic of Palestine sensitive.

He says the group has faced intimidation from groups opposed to them over the years. According to him that members of Pro-Israel groups would often come to their events and film them. Almost every member of the GWU SJP is published on Canary Mission.

Last year, GWU SJP ran a divestment campaign that urged for the university to divest or end partnerships or ties with any corporations or companies that directly profited off of what the group considered as Israeli occupation. The 10 companies included Lockheed Martin, Motorola Solutions, Hewitt Packard and General Electric according to an article on the GWU newspaper The Hatchet.

“One of the worst things Canary Mission did was they blacklisted all of the senators that voted in favor of our divestment bill as well,” said Pritsker.

As a result, this stirred a lot of distress among the student government. “A lot of senators were like ‘what the hell just happened I’m scared,” he said.

Despite students being caught off guard, many of the SJP activists are not phased “At this point I think most of us know that we’re in for the long haul,” said Pritsker.

“I’m so thankful that everyone in our SJP is just kind of like ‘This is stupid we’re gonna keep fighting for this we’re doing the right thing,’” he said.

Pritsker considers the website Canary Mission very slanderous and says that they accused SJP of supporting Holocaust denial. Although many of the activists are not scared by these accusations, some fear their ability to get jobs or attend graduate school.

“The main criticism is anti-Semitism,” says Pritsker, on what is considered the main reason why Pro-Israel  groups may oppose them.

However, Pritsker dismissed those accusations, arguing that the Pro-Israel groups who are accusing them of such activity don’t know who the members of SJP are.

“They don’t want to get to know me,” Pritsker said, “They don’t know that my grandfather escaped the pogroms in Russia because he was a Russian Jew and he was persecuted.”

“That’s the only reason I’m even in this country.” He said.

 

Two years ago, in 2015, a student at GWU was disciplined for hanging up a Palestinian flag in the window of his dorm room. After receiving many complaints by GWU students, a campus officer knocked on the student’s door and  asked him to take down his flag. The student immediately complied according to the summary of the case posted on Palestine Legal’s blog.

 

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The campus officer then filed a police report and the next week the student received a warning letter. Palestine Legal also took this on as a case, demanding that the university apologize personally to him and also revoke the incident from his student record. Due to public outcry,  the university complied and released a statement.

Tyler Crowne is a Senior at Florida State University and member of the SJP. Until recently, the most pushback that their SJP has faced according to him is having their fliers torn down by the university’s American Israel Public Affairs Committee group (AIPAC).

“That was really it,” Crowne said. Until October 18th, when the group requested funding for an event called Feminism, Internationalism and Palestine.

The group met with the Student Government Funding Committee on October 23rd but were informed that they would need security clearances for their speakers.

However, the group was skeptical. “That was a red flag for us,” he said.

They soon found out that due to a regulation put on by the university’s Board of Trustees that security clearances were required for speakers. However, this was only a temporary restriction imposed after well-known white supremacist Richard Spencer spoke at the University of Florida in Gainesville. But two days before SJP had  the meeting with the Student Government Funding Committee, that restriction had expired.

Crowne suspects this was intentional and not a mistake since he knew about three of the Student Government members attending an AIPAC conference in Washington, DC.

However, the students resolved this issue and were able to receive $800 in funding for three plane tickets and held the event on November 17th.

Crowne, despite the victory, sees incidents like this as potentially alienating students who want to get involved.

“I can imagine a lot of people would be discouraged,” he  said.

However this is not the case for students at the University of Maryland who recently ran a Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions campaign like that of GWU.

Michelle  Jones (name changed) is the president of the University of Maryland SJP and a Junior at UMD.

Michelle Jones describes her SJP as “extremely passionate people who know they’re doing the right thing and working towards a good cause”.

According to her, two members of the SJP faced disciplinary action due to protesting at an Israel Fest at university. The suspension lasted for a couple of months, according to her.

In lieu of that, UMD has spoken out against the SJP’s concerted effort to implement a Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions movement on campus. However, Jones is not discouraged. “It hasn’t worked to silence us,” she said.

Despite the many barriers that Pro-Palestine activists may face, support among members seem to be abundant.

“The only things that’s really kept us going through this whole process is just the fact that we all love each other, we all respect each other. It really is my family at GW- the people I fall back on are in my SJP chapter,” said Pritsker.

He advises students to delete or ignore negative Facebook comments and instead of arguing with opponents focus  on reaching out to people who may be on the fence with facts that speak for themselves.

“It’s gonna be difficult, it’s tough and they’re gonna be times when you start to question your own beliefs”, he said. “Just believe in yourself, as cheesy as it sounds -just believe in yourself.”

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