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Crossed lines of protest, free speech at Northeastern

Northeastern said it suspended a pro-Palestinian rights student group because it broke multiple university rules — not because it wants to silence controversial speech.

The group, Students for Justice in Palestine, believes it was targeted for its politics.

Whatever the reason, speech was squelched.

A private university is not bound by the First Amendment. But any school of supposed higher learning should think twice before adopting that exception as one of its guiding principles.

Northeastern’s SJP chapter was suspended after members slipped 600 “mock eviction” notices under dorm doors to draw attention to what the group calls Israel’s “apartheid policies against the Palestinian people.”

Michael Armini, a Northeastern spokesman, said the suspension came only after “a series of violations, which included vandalizing university property, disrupting another group’s event, failure to write a civility statement, and distributing flyers without permission.” Added Armini: “The students have been pretty successful at convincing some members of the press that this is a speech issue, but it’s simply not the case.”


Their success comes from examining the violations Northeastern found serious enough to warrant suspension.

The “vandalizing” involved putting stickers on Northeastern property. The “event disruption” refers to a walk-out SJP staged last June during a presentation by Israeli soldiers. This is how my colleague, Yvonne Abraham, described it: “At the start of the event, 35 students stood, small signs taped to their shirts. One member called the soldiers war criminals. One or two chanted slogans. They were gone in a minute.”

After that student walk-out, the university required SJP to produce a “civility statement.” Imagine requiring that of anti-war protestors from an earlier era who occupied college buildings for days rather than minutes.

Then, of course, came the flyers under dorm room doors, which the university has described as intimidating.

Harvey Silverglate, a civil liberties attorney in Boston, co-founder of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, and supporter of Israel, believes the students had a right to do what they did.

“The ‘eviction notices’ were obviously not meant to be taken as real eviction notices; they were political statements,” said Silverglate. “Any college student who could not see this should go back to high school, because he or she is not ready for higher education.”

As for the university’s claims that students were required to seek a permit before engaging in such political speech, Silverglate said, “Those regulations could, and should, readily be declared invalid under Massachusetts state law.”


So how much of this relates to SJP’s specific political mission?

M. Shahid Alam, an economics professor at Northeastern and SJP’s faculty advisor, believes the university is bowing to pressure from Israel supporters to “punish” professors and groups that speak out in support of the Palestinian cause. The objective, he contends, “is to silence valid criticism of Israeli policies.”

The controversy is part of what the Jewish Daily Forward describes as a broader reckoning right now on campuses about limits on protest over tensions in the Middle East. At Barnard, for example, a banner reading “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine” was taken down following complaints by pro-Israel student groups. The Barnard administration later ruled that no political signs could be posted in that space.

What happened at Northeastern, though, sharpened the debate. It is a clash of ideas. But it also showcases the prevailing view of today’s college administrators that a quiet campus is preferable to a noisy one, no matter what the agenda.

The old 1960s causes — civil rights and anti-war — no longer stir student passions. Today, the one cause, besides unreliable Wi-Fi, most likely to generate protest and banners involves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, any campus protests connected to it are something to tamp down out of most college administrators’ inherent desire to maintain order and offend no one. Add in the volatility of emotion over this centuries-old conflict, and there’s an even greater desire to silence protest.


Universities no longer see themselves as venues for noisy debate over issues, popular or unpopular. More than speech is being squelched. So is learning.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.