New York University has announced a vandalism investigation into a graduate student for writing “Fuck” and “free Palestine” on a bag found in the trash.
Last June, NYU graduate student Naye Idriss found a large Israeli postal bag thrown in a recycling bin in the mailroom where she worked, and used a red marker to send a message. She wrote “fuck” above the word “Israel” on the “Israel Post Co. Ltd.” bag as well as the phrase “free Palestine.” A photo shows the freshly upcycled protest sign propped up on the garbage can.
She and two coworkers were fired for this garbage graffiti, and though her coworkers were later rehired, Idriss was not. More than seven months later, she remains under investigation for allegedly violating the university’s student conduct policy on vandalism.
That’s right. At NYU, you can get in trouble for taking your marker out on the trash.
FIRE wrote NYU today, urging it to drop the investigation without disciplinary sanctions.
While NYU is a private school and doesn’t have to commit to free expression, it promises students that the university “thrives on debate and dissent, which must be protected as a matter of academic freedom within the University, quite apart from the question of constitutional rights.” That commitment does not comport with NYU’s actions here.
No matter the speaker’s views, the principles protecting free expression are universal. It is important to fight for your ideological opponent’s right to express themselves, because their right is your right.
Idriss’ message — criticism of Israel and commentary on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — is fully protected political speech. And the fact that the message appeared on a garbage bag doesn’t change that. In fact, NYU claims that Idriss vandalized the bag. But garbage, by nature, belongs to no one. When Idriss removed the bag from the trash, it became hers. And then, she drew on her own property. After expressing her political opinion, she put that bag in the trash — making it no one’s property again. (As always, FIRE takes no stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.)
If NYU’s incredibly strong free speech promises mean anything, then Idriss’ decision to position the message for all to see cannot be punished. Any student reading NYU’s commitments to free expression should feel confident expressing even the most controversial views in creative ways on campus, as NYU promises not to punish them — promises that NYU, however, has consistently refused to keep.
To be clear, if Idriss’s conduct has risen to the high level to meet unlawful harassment, NYU could do its worst. But her speech doesn’t approach that standard, which “must include something beyond the mere expression of views, words, symbols or thoughts that some person finds offensive.” In Davis v. Monroe County Board of Education, the Supreme Court set forth a clear definition of student-on-student (or peer) harassment. For student conduct (including expression) to constitute actionable harassment, it must be (1) unwelcome, (2) discriminatory on the basis of a protected status, and (3) “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the victim of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.”
As we wrote NYU today:
NYU’s harassment policy also explicitly states that it must be interpreted in light of the principles and related policies and procedures of free inquiry, free expression, and free association. It’s clear that the student’s actions here do not approach the Supreme Court’s definition of student-on-student (or peer) harassment, which requires conduct that is unwelcome, discriminatory on the basis of a protected status, and “so severe, pervasive, and objectively offensive that it can be said to deprive the [student victim] of access to the educational opportunities or benefits provided by the school.” This almost uniformly requires repetitive, clearly targeted conduct.
NYU’s investigation alone of Idriss violates her expressive rights. Universities’ investigations into protected speech imply that they could punish them for similar speech in the future and can cause a chilling effect beyond the investigated student — leading members of the community to self censor. This alone is an implicit punishment, unacceptable at an institution committed to free expression.
It’s worth noting that Idriss’ right to write “fuck Israel” is the exact same right as that of an opposite-minded student to write “fuck Palestine.” No matter the speaker’s views, the principles protecting free expression are universal. It is important to fight for your ideological opponent’s right to express themselves, because their right is your right.
We asked NYU to clarify what’s going on and to end any investigation or sanction of Idriss, and we hope to hear back soon. We urge even those who disagree with Idriss to support her right to speak, as empowering administrators to silence discussions on contentious political issues before they begin is deeply unwise.
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).