Thursday, December 4, 2014

Civil rights organizations warn universities: there is no ‘civility’ exception to First Amendment

Palestine Solidarity Legal Support on December 3, 2014

Northeastern chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. (Photo courtesy of Northeastern SJP)

A group of civil rights organizations – including Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, the Center for Constitutional Rights, the National Lawyers Guild, Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, and others – submitted a letter to over 200 universities cautioning administrators against heeding calls to censor or stifle expression criticizing the state of Israel or advocating for Palestinian human rights.

Acknowledging the pressure on universities to police and punish viewpoints critiquing Israel, the letter offers legal guidelines to help schools respond. The letter emphasizes that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has soundly rejected allegations that advocacy for Palestinian rights constitutes harassment of Jewish students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

“There is no civility exception to the First Amendment” explains Liz Jackson, co-author and staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, “universities cannot restrict student speech because they are nervous about views that challenge state violence, or express anger about Palestinian suffering.”

The letter warns universities against the now endemic use of the vague and highly subjective concept of “civility” as a tool to limit free speech on campus, specifically speech that is critical of the Israeli occupation. This term has been used recently by university administrators to justify the termination of Professor Steven Salaita’s tenured appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; to condemn political expression at Ohio University; and in remarks by Chancellor Dirks at UC Berkeley attempting to define the boundaries of campus speech – ironically on the anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Emphasizing the university’s obligation to protect the free speech of its students and faculty, the letter states:

“Debate, disagreement, and free expression, including protests, demonstrations, and other expressive activities, embody the highest values of a free university and a democratic society.”

The letter comes at a time when students’ rights to advocate for Palestine are increasingly threatened. This past year, Students for Justice in Palestine chapters across the country have been told to dilute their message, told not to use the word “Palestine,” burdened with fines and security fees for their events, accused of “incivility” and anti-Semitism, investigated and suspended for time-honored forms of political protest, and more.

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