Coalition says investigations into campus Palestine activism chill student speech rights

ActivismUS Politics
on 18 Comments
Mock checkpoint
Students for Justice in Palestine protesters at a mock checkpoint in Berkeley
(Photo: Tony Zhou/The Daily Californian)

Prolonged federal investigations of Palestine solidarity activism on campuses are chilling students’ constitutional rights to organize and speak out, a coalition of civil rights groups has charged in letters to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE). The civil rights and advocacy groups are asking the federal government to take a number of steps to remedy what they say is the problem of investigations that are having a chilling effect on students’ speech.

The letters (read them here), sent to the DOE civil rights division in San Francisco and the DOE’s assistant secretary for civil rights, are a response to the spate of Title VI civil rights complaints that have been filed by Jewish students who advocate for Israel. These complaints allege that campuses have allowed an anti-Semitic environment to flourish, but they mostly concern Palestine solidarity activism. The Title VI complaints have sparked federal inquiries on a number of California campuses.

“The numerous complaints and continued threats of complaints…have resulted in universities increasing pressure on students advocating for Palestinian rights, often applying campus rules unequally and obstructing their activities to avoid accusations that the university is enabling an anti-Semitic environment by allowing students to express their views,” the groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), the National Lawyers Guild and Jewish Voice for Peace say.

The detailed letters charge that the investigations are based on complaints that conflate political speech critical of Israel with anti-Semitism. The groups also state that the investigations have been prolonged–”well beyond the OCR’s internal benchmark of 180 days”–and have not allowed students most affected by these complaints to voice their concerns.

The civil rights groups’ statements request that the DOE take a number of steps to remedy the problems they bring up. Among the recommendations are that the DOE issue a letter stating that student political speech is protected under the First Amendment and that “advocacy for Palestinian human rights and criticism of Israeli government policies are not anti-Semitic.”

“The abuse of civil rights laws to silence political views tramples on the First Amendment, and is already causing a tangible, detrimental impact on Arab, Muslim, and other students who espouse particular views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” said CCR Cooperating Counsel Liz Jackson in a statement. “That contravenes the spirit of Title VI and of our Constitution. And it wrongly conflates Jewish identity with uncritical support for Israel.”

The civil rights groups’ statements are a forceful rebuke to the DOE’s practice of opening up civil rights investigations based on the Israel-related complaints of Jewish students who charge that activities like mock checkpoints and Israel Apartheid Week are anti-Semitic. The letter recommends that the DOE “direct [civil rights] field offices not to investigate complaints where the facts alleged, even if true, constitute pure political speech or expressive activity.”

In 2010, after lobbying led by groups like the right-wing Zionist Organization of America, the DOE shifted policy to allow Title VI complaints to be filed from religious groups with shared ethnic characteristics. Title VI is the section of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits institutions that receive federal funding from discriminating based on race, color and national origin. The DOE’s 2010 decision opened the gates for the current complaints from Jewish pro-Israel students.

Despite the fact that no campus has been found to be in violation of Title VI as a result of any of these complaints, civil rights groups charge that they are still having an impact on activism and speech on campus.

Currently, there are three cases in California that are being investigated in response to a Title VI complaint being filed. For instance, the University of California, Berkeley campus is being investigated as a result of a complaint filed by students who were affiliated with Tikvah Students for Israel. The UC Berkeley investigation started out as a lawsuit in 2011, which was ended after the school and the students reached an agreement in which the university said it would consider changes to policy on campus protests. The judge in the original lawsuit stated that “a very substantial portion of the conduct to which [the complainants] object represents pure political speech and expressive conduct, in a public setting, regarding matters of public concern, which is entitled to special protection under the First Amendment.”

On the same day the agreement with UC Berkeley was reached, the same students filed a Title VI complaint with the San Francisco Division of the DOE’s Office for Civil Rights. The complaint alleges that mock checkpoints and Israel Apartheid Week create “a disturbing echo of incitement, intimidation, harassment and violence carried out under the Nazi regime and those of its allies in Europe against Jewish students and scholars … during the turbulent years leading up to and including the Holocaust.”

The prolonged nature of the civil rights investigations is causing “harm,” the letter from the CCR and others state. “The courts have long recognized that even government scrutiny – let alone full-blown investigations such as those at issue here – has a marked potential to chill speech and other expressive activities.”

And the Berkeley investigation has had an impact on students, the civil rights groups say. Specifically, the letter to the San Francisco Division of the DOE states:

A graduate student active with one of the groups targeted by the lawsuit against UC Berkeley (Students for Justice in Palestine) was told by his adviser that his public status as a Palestinian rights activist would hinder his career.

An Arab Muslim student stated that he declined to get involved with the second group targeted by the Berkeley lawsuit (the Muslim Student Association), for fear that it would jeopardize his chances of getting into graduate school.

Pro-Palestinian students frequently express anxiety about being falsely branded as antiSemites.

Several students declined to have their names appear on declarations to OCR regarding the UC Berkeley complaint, for fear that they would be improperly smeared as anti Semites or otherwise targeted.

About Alex Kane

Alex Kane is a freelance journalist who focuses on Israel/Palestine and civil liberties. Follow him on Twitter @alexbkane.

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18 Responses

  1. BrianEsker
    May 16, 2013, 2:16 pm

    This is one of the most reassuring things that I have ever read here on Mondo. It reaffirms the fact that there is a wide concern not just about all this highly synchronized Jew hatred churned out by various radical groups, but that there is a very definitive cult-like terror aspect as well. One of the most common cries we hear on campus these days is “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea!” There can be no illusion what this represents, and it sure ISN’T a 2 state solution!

    • Ecru
      May 16, 2013, 3:20 pm

      Possibly because the 2 State Solution is presently busy playing a minor flesh-eating role in the Walking Dead.

    • Les
      May 16, 2013, 3:56 pm

      We can see with our own eyes that Israel’s ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians is proof positive that Jews don’t hate Palestinians.

    • justicewillprevail
      May 16, 2013, 4:44 pm

      The only illusion seems to be the one you are labouring under. As a complete misreading and inverted conclusion, it takes the biscuit. Perhaps you might take a moment to read the article.

    • maggielorraine
      May 16, 2013, 4:57 pm

      Yep, Brian. You’re right, we do chant from the river to the sea. While SJP itself does not feel it has the authority to dictate to Palestinians what a final status solution would be, we are sure about a few things. Palestinian in Israel face second class citizenship. Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza are under occupation. And refugees have been denied their fundamental right to return to their homeland. From the river to the sea means that every part of this territory will be liberated so that justice will be denied to no one. Some of us think that necessitates a one state solution, one person/one vote, others think if a two state solution included the eradication of ethno/religious Jewish supremacy and a recognition of the nakba then tht would work too. But regardless, the truth remains that freedom, justice and equality are the ideals and goals that drive this movement. And they are so powerful, so animating, and so fundamentally right that so long as we keep fighting we will attain them. From the river to the sea Palestine will be free!

    • Stephen Shenfield
      May 16, 2013, 7:40 pm

      Here is a counter-slogan you might like to chant:

      From the sea to the river
      We will eat chopped liver!

    • Rusty Pipes
      May 16, 2013, 9:14 pm

      “…will be free” sounds like a threat to you? The white supremacists in Jim Crow South were just as afraid when they heard uppity BDSers sing: “We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.”

    • talknic
      May 17, 2013, 2:49 am

      @BrianEsker

      “One of the most common cries we hear on campus these days is “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea!” “

      Independence cannot be declared while one’s rightful territories are under occupation. Israel has prevented a two state solution for 65 years by occupying non-Israeli territory. http://wp.me/pDB7k-Xk

      What was left of Palestine (after Israel was declared and recognized “as an independent republic within frontiers approved by the General Assembly of the United Nations in its Resolution of November 29, 1947”) has territory that extends from the Jordan River to the Sea.

      ” There can be no illusion what this represents, and it sure ISN’T a 2 state solution!”

      The delusion is yours

      ” all this highly synchronized Jew hatred”

      State policies that run counter to International Law are Jews? WOW!!

    • Hostage
      May 17, 2013, 8:47 am

      One of the most common cries we hear on campus these days is “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea!”

      For years the articles at Wikipedia have had banners at the top claiming that almost nothing about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is undisputed or can be known for certain – except for the fact that Palestine is the conventional name for the geographical region between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Palestine

      If you still oppose equal rights and freedom anywhere, then you should probably stick to campus life until you learn a thing or two.

  2. Yasmeen
    May 16, 2013, 4:16 pm

    The intimidation and attempts to stifle free speech are frustrating. I think it gives some more strength to go further. It’s a battle we mustn’t give in.

  3. Kathleen
    May 16, 2013, 4:44 pm

    Berkeley is not the place it used to be when it comes to social justice and human rights issues especially when it comes to protecting the apartheid state of Israel

  4. gingershot
    May 16, 2013, 5:28 pm

    The Pro-Apartheid Israeli groups on campus remind me of the Israeli threats to Syria –

    ‘If you fight back we will really hurt you’

    I’m always surprised how the Zionists think they are so clever to turn things on their head – and then only fight the fights they have framed that way. It’s a tired old racket

  5. Shingo
    May 16, 2013, 6:33 pm

    This is one of the most reassuring things that I have ever read here on Mondo.

    Yes, Zionist nut cases are always fans of McCarthyism and crack downs on freedom of speech. It goes with their fascist ideology.

    It reaffirms the fact that there is a wide concern not just about all this highly synchronized Jew hatred

    No, it affirm that right wing Zionists are working overtime to crush free speech and criticism of Israel. They, like you, are clearly scared that awareness Israel’s pariah status is becoming mainstream.

    but that there is a very definitive cult-like terror aspect as well

    Yes, we know all about the Jewish Defense League.

    One of the most common cries we hear on campus these days is “Palestine will be free from the river to the sea!

    That’s because a Palestinian state based om pre ’67 borders would indeed span the river to the sea. But we know how relieved yo must be that Israel has killed that possibility.

  6. Annie Robbins
    May 16, 2013, 6:55 pm

    i’m really proud of the sjp student activists at berkeley. no one should have to endure the kind of harassment they have endured for years. now many student activists have such well funded adversaries so willing to engage in bullying and lawfare to intimidate them. especially the false claims of not being “safe” etc . it’s ridiculous. kudos to them for keep on keeping on! especially the apartheid week activities. yes!

  7. Dutch
    May 16, 2013, 9:53 pm

    In the wake of this subject: I just saw the Israeli documentary ‘The law in these parts’ (2012), that deals with the system of military laws in the Westbank, and the courts that rule them. The film actually is a (unique) series of interviews with military judges, prosecutors and advisors that served between 1967 and today, who tell about their job to protect ‘the system’ (changing the laws along the line to accommodate new ‘facts on the ground’). Very telling. Go see it if you can.

    http://www.thelawfilm.com/eng#!/the-film

  8. DICKERSON3870
    May 16, 2013, 10:56 pm

    RE: “Prolonged federal investigations of Palestine solidarity activism on campuses are chilling students’ constitutional rights to organize and speak out, a coalition of civil rights groups has charged in letters to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE)… The letters . . . are a response to the spate of Title VI civil rights complaints that have been filed by Jewish students who advocate for Israel. . .~ Alex Kane

    SEE: “The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics”, by David Theo Goldberg & Saree Makdisi, Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2009

    [EXCERPT] . . . It is an extraordinary fact that no fewer than thirty-three distinct organizations – including AIPAC, the Zionist Organization of America, the American Jewish Congress, and the Jewish National Fund – are gathered together today as members or affiliates of the Israel on Campus Coalition. The coalition is an overwhelmingly powerful presence on American college campuses for which there is simply no equivalent on the Palestinian or Arab side. Its self-proclaimed mission is not merely to monitor our colleges and universities. That, after all, is the commitment of Campus Watch, which was started by pro-Israel activists in 2002. It is, rather (and in its own words), to generate “a pro-active, pro-Israel agenda on campus.”
    There is, accordingly, disproportionate and unbalanced intervention on campuses across the country by a coalition of well-funded organizations, who have no time for — and even less interest in — the niceties of intellectual exchange and academic process. Insinuation, accusation, and defamation have become the weapons of first resort to respond to argument and criticism directed at Israeli policies. As far as these outside pressure groups (and their campus representatives) are concerned, the intellectual and academic price that the scholarly community pays as a result of this kind of intervention amounts to little more than collateral damage. . .

    ENTIRE ARTICLE – http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/sept_oct_09_goldberg_makdisi

  9. DICKERSON3870
    May 16, 2013, 11:18 pm

    RE: “Prolonged federal investigations of Palestine solidarity activism on campuses are chilling students’ constitutional rights to organize and speak out, a coalition of civil rights groups has charged in letters to the U.S. Department of Education (DOE)… The letters . . . are a response to the spate of Title VI civil rights complaints that have been filed by Jewish students who advocate for Israel. . .~ Alex Kane

    MY COMMENT: This effort by Israel’s Likudnik supporters to use “lawfare” to abuse Title VI by filing frivolous civil rights complaints in an effort chill/impair the constitutional rights of students to organize and speak out in support of Palestinian rights is yet another reason I fear that Revisionist Zionism and Likudnik Israel (specifically by virtue of their inordinate sway over the U.S.) might very well be an “existential threat” to the values of The Enlightenment [like “the right of free speech”] ! ! !
    “Down, down, down we [the U.S.] go into the deep, dark abyss; hand in hand with Israel.”

    OTHER EXAMPLES OF ISRAEL’S VALUES TRUMPING (OVERRIDING) THE VALUES OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT HERE IN THE U.S.
    “How We Became Israel”, By Andrew J. Bacevich, The American Conservative, 9/10/12
    LINK – http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/how-we-became-israel/
    “America Adopts the Israel Paradigm”, by Philip Ghiraldi, Antiwar.com, 7/05/12
    LINK – http://original.antiwar.com/giraldi/2012/07/04/america-adopts-the-israel-paradigm/
    “Report: Israeli model underlies militarization of U.S. police”, By Muriel Kane, Raw Story, 12/04/11
    LINK – http://www.rawstory.com/rs/2011/12/04/report-israeli-model-underlies-militarization-of-u-s-police/
    “From Occupation to ‘Occupy’: The Israelification of American Domestic Security”, By Max Blumenthal, Al-akhbar, 12/02/11
    LINK – http://english.al-akhbar.com/node/2178 OR http://www.informationclearinghouse.info/article29892.htm
    On the Wish List from the Boston Bombings – The Israelization of America (Aaron Cohen, “National Security Expert” on Fox “News” saying that we need to “get on the Israeli page”) [VIDEO, 00:24] – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fff8dXQNVdA
    “In bill discriminating against Arab- and Muslim-Americans, Boxer and 17 other senators serve Israeli gov’t over their own — Greenwald”, By Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 4/13/13
    LINK – http://mondoweiss.net/2013/04/discriminating-americans-greenwald.html
    “The Second Battle of Gaza: Israel’s Undermining Of International Law”, by Jeff Halper, mrzine.monthlyreview.org, 02/26/10
    LINK – http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/2010/halper260210.html
    “The Trial of Israel’s Campus Critics”, by David Theo Goldberg & Saree Makdisi, Tikkun Magazine, September/October 2009
    LINK – http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/sept_oct_09_goldberg_makdisi
    “Brooklyn College’s academic freedom increasingly threatened over Israel event”, by Glenn Greenwald, guardian.co.uk, 2/02/13
    LINK – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2013/feb/02/brooklyn-college-bds-alan-dershowitz
    “Peter ‘Powder Keg’ Beinart is disinvited from gig at Atlanta Jewish book festival”, by Annie Robbins, Mondoweiss, 11/05/12
    LINK – http://mondoweiss.net/2012/11/peter-powder-keg-beinart-is-disinvited-from-gig-at-atlanta-jewish-book-festival.html
    ‘Israelis are helping write US laws, fund US campaigns, craft US war policy’, by Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 6/30/12
    LINK – http://mondoweiss.net/2012/06/israelis-are-helping-write-us-laws-fund-us-campaigns-craft-us-war-policy.html
    “David Yerushalmi, Islam-Hating White Supremacist Inspires Anti-Sharia Bills Sweeping Tea Party Nation”, by Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 3/02/11
    LINK – http://www.richardsilverstein.com/tikun_olam/2011/03/02/david-yerushalmi-islam-hating-white-supremacist/
    “Boston airport security program rife with racial profiling has Israeli links”, by Alex Kane, Mondoweiss, 8/14/12
    LINK – http://mondoweiss.net/2012/08/boston-airport-security-program-rife-with-racial-profiling-has-israeli-links.html
    “Obama’s kill list policy compels US support for Israeli attacks on Gaza”, By Glenn Greenwald, guardian.co.uk, 11/15/12
    LINK – http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/nov/15/israel-gaza-obama-assassinations

    P.S. AND HERE’S ANOTHER THREAT TO THE VALUES OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT BY ISRAEL’S “CHRISTIAN” ALLIES:
    “US Religious Right Propelling Homophobia in African Countries”
    , by Common Dreams, 7/24/12
    LINK – http://www.commondreams.org/headline/2012/07/24-7

  10. seafoid
    May 17, 2013, 3:32 am

    So campus checkpoints create an echo of Nazi persecution of Jews. You can’t make this stuff up. Who runs the real checkpoints? Well blow me down with a feather duster if it isn’t the children of Abraham.

    Zionism is such a joke. It is essentially impossible for the bots to justify their abuse of the palestinians in English. So they resort to lawfare. Another sign Zionism is doomed. It is a court parlour game. Nothing to do with reality.

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