Montclair State University Student Association Reverses Penalties On Pro-Palestinian Club’s Pamphleteering

October 9, 2014

By Hannah Adely at

A pro-Palestinian student club at Montclair State University, fined two weeks ago and barred from giving out political literature, had that punishment repealed Thursday by the overseeing Student Government Association.

The Montclair Students for Justice in Palestine had been sanctioned for giving political fliers to students at an information table two weeks ago and was told the club was not supposed to take political stances. That restriction, imposed by the SGA’s attorney general, who also is a student, was reversed based on legal advice.

“It was very surprising because the action they took was very extreme, and they didn’t even give us the opportunity to voice our side of the story, possibly without even seeing the pamphlet,” said Sereen Tartir, an Elmwood Park resident who is president of the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter.

College campuses are typically viewed as hotbeds of political debate and activity. When there are cases of free-speech clampdowns, student governments are usually to blame, said Peter Bonilla, a program director at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education. They may overstep their authority or fail to understand student rights and the First Amendment, he said, adding that barring clubs from political speech “is just plain silly” and “doesn’t hold up to basic scrutiny.”

“We do see a lot of student governments tripping and falling over themselves because of perceived controversial nature of some of these organizations,” Bonilla said.

Tartir said she believed the punishment was an attempt to silence pro-Palestinian speech, and she noted incidents in which other college chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine had faced punishments for posting fliers in dorms. Tartir said she was concerned that student governments were reacting to pressure in a heated political environment over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

She said it was having a “chilling effect” on campus. “What we are looking for is just treatment,” she said.

The president and attorney general of the Student Government Association did not respond to emailed requests for comment Thursday, and a university spokeswoman said students were responsible for the decision.

Tartir said the club had gotten permission to staff an information table at the student center on Sept. 22, where it gave pamphlets describing the group’s political views, activities and meeting dates. The attorney general, Demi Washington, said in a letter to the club that she had received a complaint from students and a faculty member about the pamphlet and that it contained “offensive and political wording.”

She imposed a fine of 5 percent of the club’s fall semester budget, ordered the club not to give out political literature and wrote that the club would lose its charter if it didn’t comply. First offenses are supposed to get a warning, according to regulations, but none was given.

Tartir and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education wrote to the Student Government Association and school officials, saying that the group’s constitutional rights had been violated. Kristen Bunk, president of the Student Government Association, wrote Thursday to inform the club that the sanctions were revoked and that she recognized the right of people and organizations to express their views.

A university spokeswoman said in an email that the decision was made by students and not the administration, even though administrators were copied on letters about the sanctions. She said the university was “satisfied” that the association reached a resolution.

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Schools: Montclair State University Cases: Montclair State University: Pro-Palestinian Group Fined for ‘Political’ Expression