When 'Civility' Is Code for Suppression

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When 'Civility' Is Code for Suppression

On the eve of the 50th anniversary of the free speech movement this September, University of California Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks sent an email to the campus community stating that the right to free speech "requires that people treat each other with civility."

The Chancellor was forced to backtrack and clarify his statement after scholars and commentators raised concerns that civility would be used as an excuse to repress legitimate political debate.

Still, when the powerful talk about civility, it's important to listen carefully, especially in the context of student speech on Israel and Palestine.

The battle over the diminished value of Black and Brown lives is again being fought on college campuses, in relation to police brutality here at home and in relation to Palestinian lives abroad. College students are holding die-ins, walk-outs, and banner drops in protest of Israel's treatment of Palestinians. They distribute flyers, post articles and engage in street theatre to raise awareness about the issue.

In 2014, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, which defends the rights of people who speak out for Palestinian freedom, received over 240 requests for legal support, the vast majority from students.

They are the Mario Savios of this generation and, under the guise of civility, they are being punished, censored and attacked by their (cash-strapped) administrations, often after pressure from powerful Israel advocacy groups and big donors. In other words, civility is a code word to mask suppression of speech deemed disagreeable.

Below are a few examples of what we saw in 2014. (And here are a few more.)

Outright Censorship

In September, Loyola University-Chicago temporarily suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter after Palestinian students -- in an action reminiscent of lunch counter sit-ins of the Civil Rights era -- attempted to register for a Birthright Israel trip. After a month-long investigation and a four-hour hearing, the university found SJP "responsible" for failing to register a "demonstration" and it was put on probation for the remainder of the academic year.

In March, Northeastern University suspended its SJP chapter after students distributed "mock eviction" flyers with facts on Israel's policy of demolishing Palestinian homes. Incredibly, campus police interrogated two SJP students in their homes, approached two students in class, and called four other students on their phones for allegedly breaking dorm rules on flyering -- rules which anyone who has lived in a college dorm knows are routinely violated. After groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and the International Jewish Anti-Zionist Network rallied in support of SJP, Northeastern lifted the suspension and reinstated the club.

Last March, Barnard College removed an approved SJP banner after pro-Israel students complained that the message "Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine" and a hand-painted map of historic Palestine made them feel unsafe. Barnard no longer allows students groups to hang banners over Barnard Hall, a decades-long tradition.

Pressure to Dilute Speech Supporting Palestinian Rights

Last October, an administrator at John Jay College of The City University of New York instructed SJP not to use sheets covered in red paint during their "Die-In/Vigil from Ferguson to Gaza" event after some students complained that they felt uncomfortable with the message. Students altered their plans as a result.

Another university on the eastern seaboard pressured students not to form an SJP last spring because the administration believed SJPs have a "negative influence on campus." After the students pushed back, the university acquiesced.

Politicians Pressure Universities to Censor Speech Supporting Palestinian Rights

Last June, Los Angeles City Councilmember Bob Blumenfield introduced a resolution urging the University of California to restrict student organizing around the Israel lobby's influence on student politics. The resolution suggested that such "anti-Israel" activity be referred to law enforcement and came a month after UCLA chancellor Gene Block called for "civility," stating that he was troubled by an ethics pledge asking potential student leaders to decline taking free trips from lobbying groups with a history of discrimination.

Likewise, New York State Assembly Members Steven Cymbrowitz and Dov Hikind demanded that Brooklyn College cancel a November discussion, on -- ironically -- attempts to censor speech supporting Palestinian rights in academia.

By the standards of the powerful, the Free Speech Movement of the 1960s was not civil. Protests against the Vietnam War were not civil. The movement to boycott South African apartheid was not civil. The "No Justice, No Peace" slogans and rolling street protests we see in response to police violence against Black and Brown communities are not civil.

These movements were and are controversial, divisive, and made some people uncomfortable. The movement for justice in Palestine is no different. Civility is all too often selectively invoked as an excuse to repress political activism; what ultimately matters is not civility but the causes of justice and freedom and the right to fight for them.

Radhika Sainath

Radhika Sainath is cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights and a staff attorney at Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, where she advises students on matters relating to free speech, discrimination, threats, surveillance, and disciplinary charges.

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