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Free Speech Concerns Swirl Around Northeastern University’s Suspension of Pro-Palestinian Group

In recent days, FIRE has been following the story—reported today by The Boston Globe—that Northeastern University has suspended the group Northeastern Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) for reasons that seem largely related to the group’s expression.

The most recent incident, which seems to have triggered Northeastern SJP’s suspension, involved some group members placing mock “eviction” notices, intended to mimic the notices served to Palestinians in contested territories, under residence hall doorways. The Globe reports:

Students for Justice in Palestine was suspended March 7, nearly two weeks after it slid 600 “mock eviction” notices under dorm room doors to draw attention to forced evictions of Palestinians by the Israeli government. The group says the college’s actions infringe on students’ free speech rights.

The full notice of suspension and Northeastern SJP’s detailed response to it are on the organization’s website. The letter refers to “Engaging in disruptive behavior at an authorized event of another recognized student organization on April 8, 2013,” to demonstrate the group’s alleged repeat offenses. To those lacking context for the event and alleged disruption in question, this sounds bad for the organization.

What actually happened, however, was that Northeastern SJP staged a “walkout” of another group’s event, a relatively non-intrusive method of protest that allows a group to register its opposition without denying a speaker’s right to free speech. As the Globe’s Yvonne Abraham wrote of the protest last June:

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.

For this protest, SJP has been placed on probation, and will be suspended indefinitely for further transgressions. They must also create a civility statement, laying down rules for future conduct.

Northeastern says the group was sanctioned purely because it failed to get a permit for its demonstration, which the school requires at least seven days in advance. The students say the university has targeted them for their views.

“The university is concerned about its image,” says Tori Porell, an SJP leader. “Some people are trying to smear them as anti-Semitic, so they’re attempting to stop anything seen as controversial.”

University officials knew about the protest beforehand, and e-mailed SJP to urge “respect and decorum,” directing them not to bring in signs, and to “discourage vocal disruption.” The students believed the small signs on their chests complied with that directive, and say they did not encourage chanting. They say the e-mail was tacit permission to proceed, even without a formal permit.

Among the sanctions given to Northeastern SJP for this apparently protected protest was a mandate that its members write a “Civility Statement,” a chilling requirement that runs counter to the ideal of the university as a marketplace of ideas. Universities, of course, can espouse virtues such as civility and encourage their students to espouse them as well, but requiring that students abide by such ideals, and going so far as to mandate that student organizations produce statements professing commitment to such ideals, is hugely problematic.

Northeastern’s sanctions against Northeastern SJP last year, then, seem to have been based in part on premises that were at best dubious, and at worst a substantial violation of the group’s rights pursuant to Northeastern’s promises of free expression. What’s more, Northeastern used the event as an impetus to impose a vague and onerous new policy requiring seven days’ notice for campus protests and demonstrations. As my colleague Will Creeley told the Globe’s Abraham, “Seven days’ notice is the difference between having one’s message heard and being last week’s news.”

Ostensibly, Northeastern SJP’s eviction notices constitute an infraction not because of their content, but because the group’s members didn’t get proper permission to distribute them. Even if this were true, however, it became an issue only after complaints about the flyers were brought to Northeastern’s attention—complaints directly related to the content of the notices. What’s more, a double standard may be at play here: Northeastern SJP notes on its website that the “guidelines on flyer distribution in dormitories are flouted, if not flatly ignored, by other student groups, as well as individuals on a regular basis.”

Northeastern, being a private university, is not bound by the First Amendment. Yet the university commits itself to the same speech-protective standard the First Amendment demands, proclaiming in its Code of Student Conduct: “As citizens and as members of an academic community, students enjoy the same basic rights and are bound by the same responsibilities as all citizens.” Northeastern University has a lot to overcome if it wishes to dispel the notion that it wrongly punished Northeastern SJP for its protected protest activities. First it saddled the group with illiberal sanctions that violated its right to protest. Now it has suspended the group following another exercise of protected expression, and, even worse, used last year’s improper punishment as a basis for branding the group as a repeat offender and enhancing its sanctions.

As the Globe reports, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and National Lawyers Guild are supporting Northeastern SJP. FIRE hopes Northeastern will heed ACLU attorney Sarah Wunsch’s advice, as reported in the Globe today:

“The fact that speech may be controversial or upsetting to some doesn’t make it hateful or a crime,” said Sarah Wunsch, a staff attorney for the Massachusetts chapter of the ACLU. “Northeastern wants to be recognized as a world-class university. World-class universities do not censor speech in this way.”

FIRE continues to monitor this burgeoning controversy at Northeastern, so stay tuned to The Torch for further updates.

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