Coalition says investigations into campus Palestine activism chill student speech rights

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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.

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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… Read more »

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.

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

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

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.… Read more »