In the wake of widespread student protests on our nation’s campuses surrounding the conflict in the Middle East, universities have a choice: Laudably uphold students’ fundamental free speech right to share their views with passion and urgency or stifle dissent and pray nobody finds out. At Rockland Community College in New York, administrators chose to quietly suspend student Madeline Ward for her pro-Palestinian advocacy. Now, FIRE is here to sound the alarm about this blatant violation of students’ First Amendment rights.
Why, exactly, did this public college punish Ward? RCC wouldn’t put it in writing, but the timeline alone is telling. The same day Ward shouted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and, “Jews for Palestine,” at a Unity Gathering in Support of Israel on RCC’s campus on Oct. 12, the college charged her with a litany of student conduct violations, including disrupting the event. Although Ward didn’t block anyone from attending the gathering and her remarks lasted only a few seconds before she peacefully left the venue, RCC found her responsible for disruptive behavior, imposing a written warning and assigning her a reflection paper about complying with college policies.
“I am an anti-Zionist Jewish activist who is advocating for Palestinian liberation both in person and online,” said Ward. “RCC has declared its staunchly pro-Israel, pro-Zionism stance, with no tolerance to those who are publicly in opposition to this.”
FIRE wrote RCC on Nov. 1, urging the college to rescind its punishment of Ward for her clearly protected political speech. We explained how nondisruptive expression about public issues merits the highest level of protection under the First Amendment, which RCC is bound to uphold.
RCC ignored our letter and, the next day, suspended Ward for unspecified “reports of alleged violations of the Student Code of Conduct that our office received,” banning her from campus on threat of arrest. The college then charged her with “Discriminatory/Harassing Behavior,” “Endangering Conduct,” and “Intimidation” and summoned her to a disciplinary hearing.
Why? Ward had no idea, and RCC refused to tell her. None of the disciplinary notices contained any information about the factual allegations supporting these drastic disciplinary measures, despite Ward’s repeated requests for this key information.
It was only at the Nov. 7 hearing that RCC finally disclosed to Ward that it was, again, punishing her for what she shouted at the event. According to Ward, RCC administrators at the hearing criticized her pro-Palestinian views and even blamed her for the vitriol directed at faculty by unknown third parties because she posted their publicly available faculty email addresses online.
Conspicuously missing from the hearing: any explanation of how Ward’s words could have possibly constituted harassing or threatening conduct. At no point during the hearing did any RCC administrators describe how Ward violated any college policies. This didn’t stop RCC from somehow finding her responsible for all charges and suspending her until the fall 2024 semester.
Once again, the suspension notice failed to note any factual support for the harsh sanction. But the college did put in writing that “continued posting of any college-related information may lead to separate legal action.” In other words: Stop talking.
At this moment of intense disagreement on extremely heated issues, RCC’s punishment of Ward demonstrates a callous disregard for students’ core First Amendment right to express their views. FIRE wrote RCC again today explaining how Ward’s fleeting remarks do not remotely approach the legal standard for true threats or discriminatory harassment.
Even if they did, RCC’s manifestly unfair disciplinary process never provided Ward with the basis of these serious allegations until the hearing, affording her no time at all to gather witnesses, prepare a defense, or meaningfully contest the charges. This suggests RCC punished Ward because of administrators’ naked opposition to her political views instead of for any punishable misconduct.
Ward appealed the suspension, and the appeal hearing is scheduled for Nov. 16. FIRE now publicly calls on RCC to immediately correct this ongoing and egregious violation of Ward’s rights by rescinding her suspension.
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).
We're joined by First Amendment attorney Marc Randazza and British journalist Brendan O'Neill to discuss the state of free speech in the United States and Europe. Randazza is a First Amendment attorney and the managing partner at Randazza...