Northeastern University limits free speech
Since April 2013, Northeastern University has disproportionally singled out and punished students based on political associations backing Palestinian freedom and rights. Limitations on students’ political speech rights are illegal, violate school policy, and are inconsistent with upholding diversity, academic freedom, and the free exchange of ideas on campus.
Northeastern placed Students for Justice in Palestine on academic probation after members participated in a preplanned walkout to protest Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians at a campus event featuring Israeli soldiers. In compliance with school procedure, the administration was notified beforehand. The Massachusetts American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and the National Lawyers Guild all criticized the university’s decision.
Yet the administration refused to back down on probation and has doubled down since in denying students their expected free speech rights.
The story died down until this fall when SJP members staged a popular action occurring on campuses countrywide. Mock eviction notices, clearly labeled, were posted on dorm rooms. The action intended to call attention to Israel’s systematic demolition of more than 24,000 Palestinian homes in the Occupied Territories and Israel since 1967.
Following this action, SJP was suspended last month. Two students now face disciplinary charges for their participation. A new “PC” or political correctness pervades our campus: Be Palestine Correct — meaning disregard Palestinian rights — or face censorship and punishment. No other political group on campus is subjected to reprisal for exercising similar free speech rights. Conservative and liberal legal rights groups alike are right to be concerned.
To our knowledge, Northeastern’s SJP is the only student group at the university ever to be suspended for peaceful expressive activity. No other US university has suspended an SJP chapter for mock eviction actions, though nationwide on-campus Palestine solidarity activists are increasingly harassed. Palestine Solidarity Legal Support documented over 100 such cases in 2013.
School policies regarding posting fliers are routinely flouted by other Northeastern student groups — such as postings for music events, fraternity advertisements, and menus from local businesses. Flier distribution is, apparently, only subject to discipline when the content of the flier includes pro-Palestinian speech.
The SJP suspension is unprecedented, particularly as it occurred without a fair process to review and contest charges and evidence.
The sooner Northeastern administrators recognize the Jewish community is not monolithic on Israel the better.
Rather than penalize Palestinians, Jews, and others for working together to advance Palestinian rights, the Northeastern administration should get out of the way and let our ideas do battle with kneejerk defenders of Israel who still see no urgency in ending Israel’s subjugation of millions of Palestinians. On a level playing field, this is a fight we are convinced we can win. Of course, we will also win even when shackled by speech limitations as more and more people will reject the strong-arm tactics of the Northeastern administration.
The proper response to our political speech on Palestine is not censorship and intimidation, but for the other side to muster its best arguments. Those arguments having failed, we now find ourselves suspended and two members facing racially and religiously motivated interrogation.
Northeastern should stand down and allow free speech to prosper.
Max Geller is a student at Northeastern University School of Law.