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‘Globe’ Columnist: Northeastern Censorship Squelches Speech, Learning

Joan Vennochi has a brilliant column in The Boston Globe about Northeastern University’s suspension of its campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Not only does Vennochi quickly dismantle all of the university’s excuses for the suspension, she also gets to the heart of why so many universities are so quick to squelch campus protests. As she writes, “[T]he prevailing view of today’s college administrators [is] that a quiet campus is preferable to a noisy one, no matter what the agenda.” (Emphasis added.) She goes on to say:

The old 1960s causes — civil rights and anti-war — no longer stir student passions. Today, the one cause, besides unreliable Wi-Fi, most likely to generate protest and banners involves the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Therefore, any campus protests connected to it are something to tamp down out of most college administrators’ inherent desire to maintain order and offend no one. Add in the volatility of emotion over this centuries-old conflict, and there’s an even greater desire to silence protest.

Universities no longer see themselves as venues for noisy debate over issues, popular or unpopular. More than speech is being squelched. So is learning.

The article also quotes FIRE co-founder and Chairman of the Board Harvey Silverglate on the ridiculousness of Northeastern’s crackdown on SJP’s mock eviction fliers:

“The ‘eviction notices’ were obviously not meant to be taken as real eviction notices; they were political statements,” said Silverglate. “Any college student who could not see this should go back to high school, because he or she is not ready for higher education.”

As for the university’s claims that students were required to seek a permit before engaging in such political speech, Silverglate said, “Those regulations could, and should, readily be declared invalid under Massachusetts state law.”

Vennochi makes what is probably my new favorite statement about the relationship between free speech and private universities: “A private university is not bound by the First Amendment. But any school of supposed higher learning should think twice before adopting that exception as one of its guiding principles.”

We couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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