If you’ve been following the news on campus, you might have heard the anti-Israel student group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), was suspended at Northeastern University following their distribution of fake eviction notices to students living in the dorms. Since then, pro-Palestinian forces around the country have rallied to defend the students’ freedom of speech, which they claim is under attack.
The Huntington News published an op-ed accusing the university of “censorship,” and the students’ Change.org petition said, “This is an attack on the fundamental rights of free speech and academic freedom and yet another example of the muzzling of pro-Palestine speech on college campuses.” The Forward published an article by two SJP members claiming the students were punished for “protesting Israel.”
The distribution notice stunt, proven to be a source of tension on other campuses, intimidated students and made them feel unsafe in their own homes on campus. SJP responded to these complaints with mockery. The expression goes that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but now it would appear that crying “freedom of speech” comes just before it.
The trouble is that this debate has nothing to do with freedom of speech and is not even remotely related to academic freedom. SJP was not suspended for what they said, but the manner in which they expressed their views. The SJP at Northeastern is allied with other SJPs that lead the campaign to delegitimize Israel on campus and sponsor divestment and boycott campaigns SJP has been creating a hostile campus climate toward Jewish and pro-Israel students across the country for the last several years.
The situation in Boston has been especially worrisome. For example, on Valentine’s Day 2013, 100 students lay siege to an Israeli chocolate store, harassing the customers trying to have lunch there. SJP members also disrupted a Holocaust Remembrance Day event, for which the organization was placed on probation. SJP also led a pro-Hamas rally in Copley Square in 2012. Here is a picture of Max Geller, the President of SJP, wearing a Hezbollah t-shirt. You can find more details about SJP’s aggressive and radical behavior here.
The eviction notices were the last straw for the university. It suspension letter contained several examples of the SJP flouting university policies and procedures, including criminal activities such as vandalism, even after having been warned of the consequences. SJP is not a victim of oppression or censorship. They are merely receiving the just desserts of their intimidating behavior on campus, which has been a very long time in coming.
Protesting is protected speech on campus, and has been for some time. But these students went a bridge too far, and now they are suffering the consequences of their radical behavior. If SJP would like to protest their suspension under the basis that they are innocent of violating university policies, their case would be a substantially stronger one. As it is, they believe that they were justified in violating the rules because other groups did as well. This argument has no merit. This particular case is not a fight over “freedom of speech.” As a private institution, Northeastern is permitted to enforce a Code of Conduct, which says:
It is recognized that all members of an academic community, individually and collectively, have a right to express their views publicly on any issue; however, the University insists that all such expressions be peaceful and orderly; conducted in a manner consistent with the Code and University policies; and in such a way that University business and respectful academic discourse are not unduly disrupted….
Conduct prohibited by this Code, including but not limited to harassment, bullying, abuse of others, disorderly conduct, and vandalism, that is motivated in whole or part by prejudice towards an individual’s or group’s real or perceived race, color, religion, religious creed, genetics, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, age, national origin, ancestry, disability, or veteran status.
SJP’s latest abusive act violated these guidelines and was rightly condemned and punished by the administration at NEU. It is interesting that many who are freedom of speech advocates today are often the first to deny freedom of speech to others tomorrow. If hundreds of students harassed Muslim students and shouted slogans criticizing Islam under the banner of “Students Against Sharia,” you can be sure that SJP would be among the first to call for steps to be taken against the perpetrators.
The crusaders for the right of SJP and other anti-Israel groups to express views that are often anti-Semitic also ignore the rights of Jewish and pro-Israel students to attend Northeastern without fear and express their own opinions. Make no mistake, the SJP’s goal is to tar Israel with specious accusations and intimidate those who would counter their arguments with the truth. SJP’s faculty advisor bragged to his membership that anti-Israel activism has made pro-Israel students afraid to speak out against them.
Thus, SJP’s seeks to use its right to free speech to take away the rights of its critics. Northeastern’s administration must stand up to the literal and virtual mob trying to coerce it to back down with chants of “long live the intifada” and accusations that NEU President Aon is a “Zionist goon.” To their credit, school officials have so far resisted the pressure and remained steadfast in their rejection of discrimination and brownshirt-style intimidation toward a minority group on their campus. It is an important precedent that administrators around the country should use to protect the rights of all students and faculty on campus and reinforce the principles of civil discourse in a setting designed for honest and informed dialogue.