(Photo via Northeastern University SJP Facebook)
Boston’s Northeastern University has come under criticism for imposing sanctions on a student group that briefly protested a talk given by Israeli soldiers on campus.
The Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham details the story in a column that laments the sanctions as one more example of how college campuses have become infused with a “culture of enforced politeness that is downright depressing.”
Abraham reports that in April, the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group staged a walkout of a presentation by Israeli soldiers. The students taped protest signs to their chest, called them war criminals and briefly chanted slogans. It was all over in a minute, Abraham writes.
For this action, the SJP group has been put on probation, and if they partake in any future “transgressions,” they will be suspended indefinitely. The group has also been told to draft a “civility statement” because of their protest. Here’s more from Abraham:
Northeastern says the group was sanctioned purely because it failed to get a permit for its demonstration, which the school requires at least seven days in advance. The students say the university has targeted them for their views.
“The university is concerned about its image,” says Tori Porell, an SJP leader. “Some people are trying to smear them as anti-Semitic, so they’re attempting to stop anything seen as controversial.”
University officials knew about the protest beforehand, and e-mailed SJP to urge “respect and decorum,” directing them not to bring in signs, and to “discourage vocal disruption.” The students believed the small signs on their chests complied with that directive, and say they did not encourage chanting. They say the e-mail was tacit permission to proceed, even without a formal permit.
SJP says that in 2010, pro-Israel students disrupted a talk given by Norman Finkelstein, but were not sanctioned. And those students were also not required to come up with a “civility statement.”
“All of it operates to squelch speech in a place that ought to be teaching students about the role of dissent and vigorous debate in a free society,” the American Civil Liberties Union’s Sarah Wunsch told The Boston Globe. Abraham agrees:
If the pro-Palestinian group is really being sanctioned purely for failing to follow procedural rules, it’s time to take another look at those rules. No signs or shouting at demonstrations? Those things are essential to protest, time-honored democratic traditions. A requirement that students get a permit a week ahead is especially onerous.
Northeastern University student Porell told the Globe that the university is sensitive to charges of anti-Semitism. The sanctions on SJP have been imposed after Northeastern has come under attack from anti-Muslim activist Charles Jacobs, the founder of the Zionist group The David Project. A group he founded produced a video in 2012–similar to The David Project’s unsuccessful effort targeting Columbia Professor Joseph Massad–charging that the Northeastern Middle East curriculum was anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.
The situation at Northeastern has emerged as other student activists are dealing with administrative scrutiny. Christopher Massana, a writer at the Florida Atlantic University’s student magazine, recently reported that members of the SJP group there were being investigated for potentially violating student conduct codes. The investigation was launched after they protested a talk given by an Israeli soldier who participated in the 2008-09 assault on Gaza. After disrupting the talk, the activists were told to leave by the police, and they complied.
In 2010, the Muslim Student Union at the University of California, Irvine was suspended by the school administration after members of the group repeatedly disrupted a talk given by Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. A coalition of civil rights groups decried the suspension as “unparalleled in their severity.” The coalition added: “Student protestors have a long history of disrupting speeches, but we have not seen this type of severe sanction against other groups. The disparate treatment sends the message that UCI selectively censures particular political views, and this is unacceptable.”