Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham wrote today to criticize Northeastern University’s inconsistent handling of student protests by pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian students. The controversy centers on Northeastern’s requirement that student groups obtain a permit at least seven days in advance of protests. But Abraham questions whether the requirement was the real reason for sanctioning the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and whether such a requirement should even exist.
In April, members of SJP staged a quickly-executed walkout at a presentation by Israeli soldiers and were placed on probation by the university ostensibly for not obtaining a permit. Northeastern says that a similar protest by the student group Huskies for Israel in 2010 did not result in sanctions because that group had a permit. SJP’s punishment, though, suggests that administrators are focusing on the content of the protest, not the lack of a permit—SJP was directed to write a “civility statement.” Further, Abraham reports, Northeastern officials had emailed SJP to encourage that their protest be quiet and respectful, which SJP members had interpreted as permission in lieu of a permit.
Either way, the permit requirement delays student responses to current events and ongoing discussions, making it an obstacle to open debate on campus. FIRE’s Will Creeley commented on this problem to The Boston Globe:
“Seven days’ notice is the difference between having one’s message heard and being last week’s news,” says Will Creeley, director of advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends campus free-speech rights across the country. Mandating civility “should be anathema at a university that promises freedom of expression,” he says.
Speakers may be further discouraged by the fact that Northeastern’s Campus Activities Resource Book fails to specify what constitutes a “demonstration” that must be approved in advance. Students might self-censor, believing that any controversial public speech without notice is prohibited. Or the school could catch students off-guard by punishing them for speech that isn’t what they consider a “demonstration” at all. In mandating a time-delay for protests and forcing students to author a civility statement, Northeastern is chilling and diluting its students’ expression.
Read the rest of Abraham’s column in The Boston Globe.