Free Speech Violations and Re-Education Programs at Florida University

Intimidation of Palestine solidarity activists increasing on US college campuses

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Story Transcript

JAISAL NOOR, TRNN PRODUCER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jaisal Noor in Baltimore.

In April, five students from Florida Atlantic University’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter staged a protest and silent walkout during a speaking event featuring an Israeli soldier to highlight his involvement in Operation Cast Lead, the weeks-long assault on the Gaza Strip which resulted in the death of more than 1,400 Palestinians, 13 Israelis, and was condemned universally by human rights groups.

The students were then investigated by the school for their conduct. And while none of them accepted the validity of the charges brought against them, they signed sanction agreements with the university in order to avoid further punishment and are required to take a diversity course sponsored by the pro-Israeli Anti-Defamation League. The students say their free speech rights have been violated and are now speaking out.

Students and other groups were also shocked at the university’s decision to penalize such a common form of protest. Advocates say this is just one example of the growing intimidation of Palestinian solidarity activists happening at college campuses across the country.

We’re now joined by two guests to discuss this growing controversy. First is Nadine Aly. She’s a junior at FAU majoring in political science and minoring in French. She’s a member of the National Society of Collegiate Scholars and was one of the students involved in the incident.

We’re also joined by Liz Jackson. She’s cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights and a coordinator of the Palestine Solidarity Legal Support (PSLS) response to the repression of Palestinian rights advocacy by providing legal and strategy support to activists in the U.S.

Thank you both for joining us.

NADINE ALY, STUDENT, FLORIDA ATLANTIC UNIVERSITY: Thank you for having us.

LIZ JACKSON, COOPERATING COUNSEL, CENTER FOR CONSTITUTIONAL RIGHTS: Thanks for having us. Happy to be here.

NOOR: So, Nadine, let’s start with you. Talk about this agreement you signed, why you signed it, and more about this reeducation program and the terms of the agreement.

ALY: Well, after a collective decision, the five of us decided to sign these agreements. Mainly we are focusing on our activism and education. We knew the university is intent on–like, this whole investigative process was to impede on our activism. And so we decided to sign the agreement that would–you know, we would avoid a extended legal battle with the university as well as a biased administrative hearing. They said we had a choice whether we wanted to sign the agreement or not. But it wasn’t really a choice, seeing as when the new negotiations started, it was a take-it-or-leave deal, stripping us of any type of leadership position indefinitely throughout graduation, as well as the diversity training course that for some reason they feel that we need. And that was mainly why we signed it, to avoid further sanctions, which would probably have been suspension and/or expulsion over a, you know, less than two minute protest.

And basically that’s–our reaction to that was we made sure, like every other activist around the nation, that our activism wasn’t going to be silenced and our voices weren’t–like, our rights to free speech weren’t going to be stifled. So we’re still hosting events and we’re conducting ourself as we always do.

NOOR: But the terms of the agreement do limit some of your activities on campus. Is that correct?

ALY: They limit my activities as an individual. I cannot hold any leadership positions. I was former president of SJP before I was placed on probation. But as of SJP itself, we still function as a, you know, collective group. We still host events and speakers.

NOOR: And this diversity program, it’s sponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, which is a pro-Israeli organization which routinely condemns people that oppose Israeli policy as anti-Semites. What’s your response to the fact that the diversity training is being sponsored by the ADL?

ALY: I think it’s extremely offensive, the fact that they proposed the diversity training course in the first place. And then, when we realized it was cosponsored by the Anti-Defamation League, who actually sent in or–you know, we had their current regional associate director come to our campus and pose as a graduate student studying sociology but is actually interested in joining SJP. So we’ve had them spy on us, you know, personally as SJP FAU, as a group on campus. And then, when we figured out this diversity training course was cosponsored by the Anti-Defamation League and they provide the promotional material that is taught in this training course, it was a shock to all of us and it was quite insulting, to say the least.

NOOR: Liz, I want to turn to you. I want to read you a statement by university spokesperson Lisa Metcalf, which was given to the website Inside Higher Ed. They said, while they wouldn’t comment on specific cases, reports that any students that have been disciplined for lawfully exercising their rights to free speech and public demonstration are incorrect and misleading. That’s Lisa Metcalf, a spokesperson for FAU. Can you give us your response to that statement? Is that correct?

JACKSON: Unfortunately, FAU is the one who is misleading the public. So it is true that they are not, under U.S. law, at liberty to discuss all the details of this investigation, but they’re using that as a veil to hide the central fact supporting our arguments and our complaints, that they are punishing these students in violation of the First Amendment. And that central fact is that this protest–.

So, first, to back up, their argument is that they need to be worried about protecting the First Amendment rights of the speaker. So the Israeli soldier who was presenting in this speaking event had a right to be heard, and the students are–the university is justified in disciplining the students, because they infringed on the speaker, the Israeli soldier’s First Amendment rights. That’s essentially their argument.

So that hides–that completely distorts the central fact of the protest, which is that it lasted two minutes, tops (and that’s being generous), and that the event went on as planned for, you know, an hour, hour and a half, and the speaker was fully heard. So the students’ protest was nothing more than a contribution, although a dissenting contribution, to this event. So, you know, the university is completely distorting the nature of their protest.

And secondly, the university’s arguing that they have a right and even, you know, an obligation to enforce or to impose reasonable restrictions on speech and that this is one of those reasonable regulations. Now, it is true that under the First Amendment, universities do, can, and should and often do impose what’s called time, place, and manner regulations that restrict how and when and where people can engage in expressive conduct and speech and protest. However, it is not true that that means they can interpret that however they want. And so, enforcing a policy against disruptions or against, you know, very minimal forms of dissent at a speaking event, enforcing their policy to prohibit these kinds of simple disruptions, that’s an overly restrictive regulation.

And the Supreme Court has been very clear on the law on this point, that an overly restrictive time, place, and manner regulation is a violation of the First Amendment. And there’s case law that specifically–that addresses this question that, you know, what is a disruption that’s significant enough that it can be prohibited. And it has to be a material and substantial disruption of the speaker in order for it to be punishable. And there’s just no way that the students’ protest in this case could be considered a material or a substantial disruption of the event. It was tops two minutes long. So the university’s statement that these reports are incorrect and misleading–their statement is in fact itself incorrect and misleading.

NOOR: So, Liz, your group, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, has documented almost 50 cases of on-campus intimidation this year. Can you talk about how this fits what’s happening at–what’s happening in Florida fits into a national context?

JACKSON: Sure. Yeah. What’s happening at Florida is part of a escalating national trend of repression campaigns designed to target, silence, intimidate Students for Justice in Palestine and other Palestinian rights activists. And these campaigns are being orchestrated by outside organizations like the ADL, Stand With Us, the [br{ndaI] Center, and they–just to name a few. There are others. And they are targeting, pressuring universities to crack down, discipline, restrict student speech on this issue. And really, clearly, you know, campuses, real critical debate on campuses threaten these types of Israel-aligned groups, because a new generation of Americans are being really educated about what’s happening in Israel-Palestine. So it is–you know, it’s clearly very threatening to them. But their–you know, the response to the kind of escalating student movement is escalating legal repression.

So what we’re seeing are, you know, different tactics, but misuse of our nation’s civil rights laws. We’ve been seeing some filing of Title VI complaints with the Department of Education alleging that pro-Palestinian activity on campus creates an anti-Semitic, hostile environment for Jewish students. Those complaints are almost entirely based on a completely bogus legal theory that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, and often based on bogus facts as well.

We’re also seeing, you know, really heavy pressure campaigns against universities to cancel events, like the Brooklyn College example, where really heavy pressure was put–you know, by New York City’s politicians was put on Brooklyn College to remove official political science department sponsorship of an event discussing boycott, divestment, and sanctions.

We’re seeing heavy pressure by outside groups to discipline, like in the FAU example, to discipline students for really minor, you know, sort of basic forms of protest that we’re all very used to happening on college campuses. So there’s other similar examples. In Northeastern, there’s a student group there facing very sort of similar discipline for organizing a protest just like the FAU youth students, a brief kind of dissenting voice during an Israeli soldier’s speaking event. Their student group has been put on administrative probation, and they’re being required to write a, quote, civility statement. And that’s one example.

Another example is this–at the Claremont Colleges in Southern California, there was a Palestinian student organizer of a mock Israeli checkpoint who was called by a professor during the checkpoint–a professor who was offended by the protest called the student a effing cockroach. When the student filed a formal complaint against the professor, it was dismissed. And meanwhile the Claremont McKenna College instead investigated the students for violating the demonstrations policy.

NOOR: And, Liz, the same time you see this growing trend of intimidation against Palestinian solidarity groups, there hasn’t been much media coverage, even in the progressive media, for example The Nation, ColorLines, Salon.com. They haven’t given this issue much attention. Can you talk about the challenges you faced raising awareness that this is happening and it’s growing across the country?

JACKSON: Well, so I think for the mainstream media the reason why we’re having trouble getting coverage is clear. There’s, you know, heavy Zionist pressure, and the kind of whole narrative around everything related to Israel and Palestine has been shifted so far to the right that this is, you know, a sort of dangerous topic for papers to cover, that they’re going to get an onslaught of, you know, organized op-ed campaigns screaming at them if they cover this. So that’s sort of my theory about mainstream media.

And then, you know, the progressive media, I think a lot of it has to do with we are just now getting up to speed really documenting the escalating repression, and absolutely this is, you know, the core free speech issue of our time and one of the core racial justice issues of our time. And, you know, documenting it and connecting the dots to describe the pattern is really important. And more progressive media are starting to recognize that. But it takes, you know, a lot of kind of outreach to, you know, document and educate allies about how serious the problem is. And so we’re really just getting started on that now. And I do think that there is also an intimidation factor, even for progressive media.

NOOR: Okay. Well I want to thank you both for joining us, Liz Jackson and the Nadine Aly.

JACKSON: Thank you so much.

ALY: Thank you.

NOOR: Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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