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Brandeis bans controversial student group, plunging into free speech debate

Brandeis University.Erin Clark/Globe Staff

The president of Brandeis University banned a pro-Palestinian student group on Monday over social media posts that defended Hamas, provoking condemnation from a free speech advocacy organization and thrusting the school into the maelstrom of public disputes over what kinds of expression a private institution must tolerate.

The group, Brandeis Students for Justice in Palestine, made a series of online posts in recent weeks that president Ronald Liebowitz viewed as celebrating or defending the Oct. 7 attack when Hamas fighters stormed into Israel and murdered families in their homes, massacred concertgoers at a festival, beheaded civilians and soldiers, and kidnapped more than 240 people, including children.

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“We rise today in unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian resistance in all of its forms,” the group wrote on Oct. 9. “We reject the characterization of Palestinian resistance as ‘terrorism.’ ”

The university crackdown on the group follows weeks of bitter arguments among students, alumni, and university leaders over how to talk about the Hamas attack and the brutal war in Gaza that Israel has waged in the month since. Harvard University, Columbia University, the University of Pennsylvania, and other elite schools have been consumed by controversies, which have intensified with Israel’s relentless bombardment of Gaza.

But the response at Brandeis, an institution with a strong Jewish identity, led by someone who describes himself as “an American Jew who feels strongly about Israel,” was unequivocal.

Liebowitz quickly and forcefully denounced the Hamas attack as “terrorism . . . perpetrated against innocent civilians” in a campus-wide message on Oct. 7. That response differentiated him from some university leaders who did not describe the attack as terrorism or explicitly condemn it in their original statements.

In an Oct. 12 interview with the Globe, Liebowitz criticized statements from Brandeis SJP and another student group as “beyond the pale” for defending or justifying the Hamas attack. But he said they were born of ignorance and he stopped short of taking any action against the groups.

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But on Tuesday he said additional posts by Brandeis SJP, as well as statements from the national organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, had crossed a “red line.”

The group uses the slogan, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which Liebowitz views as a call for the “erasure” of Israel, which is bordered, in part, by the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Various SJP chapters have called for “intifada,” which Liebowitz views as “an incitement to violence against Israeli civilians,” he wrote in a Globe op-ed.

The Brandeis group also posted messages, including one originally produced by a University of California Berkeley group, celebrating the attack. “Towfan Al-Aqsa now stands as a revolutionary moment in contemporary Palestinian resistance,” the message said, using Hamas’s term for the attack.

In its Oct. 9 statement, Brandeis SJP wrote, “It is a moral imperative to recognize and support the resilience of the people who have endured 75 years of oppression, displacement, and the denial of their basic rights.” The Palestinian resistance, including “armed resistance” and nonviolent methods, “is a testament to the unwavering spirit of the people who refuse to be silenced in the face of adversity,” the group wrote.

On Monday, the university sent Brandeis SJP a notice that its status as an official campus group had been rescinded “because it openly supports Hamas, which the United States has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.”

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“This decision was not made lightly, as Brandeis is dedicated to upholding free speech principles,” the notice said.

Members of the Brandeis SJP could not be reached for comment, nor did they return requests for interviews conveyed to them by an attorney. Students affiliated with the group also did not respond to interview requests made by the Globe in October.

Brandeis’s decision means the group is no longer an officially sanctioned organization. It will not receive university funding and it is prohibited from using the university’s logo.

The group was forced to cancel a vigil Monday that it had planned to hold for the victims of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

“With heavy hearts, we would like to announce that our chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine has been unjustly de-charted,” the group wrote on Instagram. “This comes as a part of Brandeis University, an institution that values social justice, trying to silence us from speaking our truth.”

On Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a free speech advocacy group, wrote to Liebowitz denouncing the decision and arguing that it violated the university’s own policies and possibly the law.

People walked through Brandeis University’s campus on Tuesday.Erin Clark/Globe Staff


“FIRE is deeply disappointed that Brandeis University has derecognized its campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine based on the university’s opposition to the group’s views,” wrote Alex Morey, FIRE’s director of campus rights advocacy.

“Mere philosophical support for or general endorsement of violence is protected speech,” Morey wrote, citing Supreme Court precedent.

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In an interview with the Globe, Morey’s colleague Zach Greenberg, an attorney who specializes in First Amendment issues, said Brandeis “punished this student group for their political advocacy” without providing any evidence the group had made “true threats” or engaged in harassment that would be punishable under the law or Brandeis’s policies.

Liebowitz disputed those arguments. No individual students, he said, have been disciplined. The group has merely lost the privileges of reserving university facilities, receiving university funding, or using Brandeis’s logo.

Students “haven’t been penalized with any disciplinary actions,” he said. “They simply have yielded their rights to certain privileges that come with an expected modicum of behavior at Brandeis.”

“They are free to say what they want. But there are consequences to free speech, which is something that is not always appreciated,” he said.

Greenberg said he conveyed interview requests on the Globe’s behalf to Brandeis SJP students, but they did not respond.

Students for Justice in Palestine has been controversial on a number of campuses. At Tufts, the SJP chapter praised the “creativity” of Hamas fighters who paraglided over a border fence before killing and kidnapping civilians attending a music festival.

“Since Friday, Palestinians have been launching a historic attack on the colonizers. Footage of liberation fighters from Gaza paragliding into occupied territory has especially shown the creativity necessary to take back stolen land,” the Tufts group wrote in the days after the attack, which killed more than 1,400 Israelis, the majority of them civilians, Israel has said.

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“We strongly disagree with and denounce SJP’s statement and want to make clear that no student group speaks for the university,” a Tufts spokesperson said in a statement last month.

Israel’s relentless bombardment in Gaza has killed more than 10,300 Palestinians, two-thirds of them women and minors, according to the Health Ministry of the Hamas-run territory.

Hilary Burns of the Globe staff contributed to this report, which used material from the Associated Press.




Mike Damiano can be reached at mike.damiano@globe.com.