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Lafayette denies recognition to Students for Justice in Palestine chapter over concerns about its proposed protected speech

Watson Hall on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Cynthia Farmer via

Watson Hall on the campus of Lafayette College in Easton, Pennsylvania.

Pennsylvania’s Lafayette College reportedly denied recognition to a prospective chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine based on concerns it could create conflicts with a recognized Jewish student group. 

According to Lafayette’s student paper, the school told students hoping to start the SJP chapter that administrators were concerned by “events SJP chapters have organized at other campuses,” “the relationship SJP would have with Hillel on campus,” and some ideas for the chapter that prospective members had brainstormed, including criticizing a class they called “propaganda” and organizing “walkouts from Zionist speakers that Hillel invites.” FIRE wrote Lafayette today, urging it to grant SJP recognition to comply with its commitment to respect students’ expressive rights.

Lafayette cited its fear of contention between Hillel Society, a Jewish student group, and SJP in denying the chapter recognition. We explained to Lafayette that denying student organizations recognition based on potential controversy or the group’s viewpoint burdens students’ abilities to organize and to express themselves — rights Lafayette’s policies guarantee.

Lafayette cannot deny recognition to a group because its views conflict with another group. As we told Lafayette today, this is blatant viewpoint-based discrimination:

At Lafayette, denying organizations recognition places them at a marked disadvantage and has material consequences, as only recognized student organizations may request funding.  And Lafayette’s denial of recognition to SJP is clearly viewpoint-based, as the college expressed concern about potential ideological conflict between it and the campus Hillel Society. Administrators also unambiguously cited controversy around the group’s ideas, affiliations, and potential expressive events when denying recognition. 

Lafayette cannot engage in blatant viewpoint discrimination by giving preferential treatment to some views over others. The “bedrock principle” underlying any conception of free speech is that it may not be restricted “simply because society finds the idea itself offensive or disagreeable.”  Likewise, a commitment to free speech presupposes that some on campus may take offense to an expressed viewpoint. It is this counter-majoritarian principle that protects “insulting, and even outrageous, speech in order to provide adequate breathing space” for public debate,  recognizing those with authority “cannot make principled distinctions” in determining what speech is sufficiently offensive to suppress.

The kinds of difficult conversations and conflicts that may arise between SJP and Hillel or other campus groups are not a legitimate basis for preventing recognition. Instead, they’re exactly what an institution anticipates when it promises its students expressive rights. 

Lafayette can — and must — address harassment and substantial disruption of students’ expressive events if it occurs, but it cannot preemptively shut down protected expression solely because the expression might be contentious.

FIRE calls on the college to grant SJP recognition and reaffirm to students that it will grant recognition based on viewpoint-neutral criteria.

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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