Boston — Like Alan Dershowitz, his former teacher and Harvard Law School colleague, Boston attorney Harvey Silverglate is both a strong supporter of Israel and a passionate free speech advocate. So Silverglate had two reactions when Northeastern University unceremoniously suspended its campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.
“I actually think that the [SJP] students are right,” he told the Forward, referring to their contention that they had just been exercising their legitimate free speech rights. “I say that despite the fact that I have very strong feelings about the enormously disturbing criticism of Israel that has erupted all around the world, and most especially in academia.”
But according to Professor Dale Herbeck, chair of Northeastern’s Communications Department, the school was well within its rights when it sanctioned the student group for slipping mock “eviction” notices under the doors of student residents. The notices, clearly marked as fake, mimic the eviction orders the group says the Israeli government posts regularly on Palestinian homes in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
“The First Amendment only protects you from the government infringing on free speech,” said Herbeck, an expert on freedom of expression and communication law. “But people lose these free speech claims all the time when you’re dealing with private entities….As a private university with a private campus, [NEU] has a right to limit who gets to speak in that space.”
The clash of these two free-speech experts encapsulates in a nutshell the larger clash that is mushrooming on campuses nationwide about the proper boundaries of protest when it comes to the issue of Israel and the Palestinians. That debate sharpened markedly in early March, thanks to SJP’s suspension at Boston-based Northeastern and a separate incident involving SJP at Barnard College in New York.
The Northeastern administration suspended its student SJP chapter on March 7, a few weeks after the group slipped their fake eviction notices under dorm room doors across the campus. The university said the notices alarmed and intimidated students.
On March 10, the administration at Barnard College, a liberal arts school closely affiliated with Columbia University, removed with no prior notice an SJP banner on the campus’ main building that it had previously approved. The banner, which read “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine,” came down after LionPAC, Columbia’s pro-Israel student organization, complained to the administration about it. The SJP banner showed a map of Israel and the occupied territories as one, undifferentiated entity. The Barnard administration later announced that no signs of a political nature could be posted henceforth by any group on the building.