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ACLU blasts Anti-Defamation League for accusing pro-Palestine student groups of supporting Hamas

Civil liberties group calls on colleges to reject calls to investigate Students for Justice in Palestine, saying SJP activities are protected by First Amendment

The ACLU blasted the Anti-Defamation League Wednesday for suggesting that Students for Justice in Palestine be investigated for possible material support of Hamas.

In an open letter, the ACLU wrote that the ADL’s accusations against SJP were made without evidence, and that SJP activism on campus is constitutionally protected by the First Amendment.

The criticism from the ACLU came in response to an open letter the ADL sent Oct. 25, asking college and university presidents to “investigate the activities” of SJP campus chapters. The Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law joined the ADL in asking schools to find out whether SJP is violating a federal law prohibiting support for “foreign terrorist” organizations.

Addressing the college and university presidents the ADL sought to engage, the ACLU said: “We urge you to reject calls to investigate, disband, or penalize student groups on the basis of their exercise of free speech rights.”

The ACLU said that while it “in no way approves or endorses” the “brutal mass murder of civilians,” it does “strongly oppose efforts to stifle free speech, free association, and academic freedom here at home.”

The ADL and the Brandeis Center responded to the ACLU by saying that SJP campus chapters “are echoing the position of Hamas so closely and with such intensity and in a manner that is tinged with threats of violence, that we believe an investigation is warranted. When the SJP says ‘Not just slogans and rallies, but armed confrontation with the oppressors,’ we should believe that is what they mean. When college students say ‘we are Hamas,’ there is serious cause for concern.”

Florida’s state university system has already shut down SJP chapters there, accusing the group of having “affirmatively identified” with Hamas in violation of state laws against supporting foreign terrorists. As evidence, Florida’s chancellor cited an SJP “toolkit” that describes Hamas’ “Al Aqsa Flood,” a reference to the Oct. 7 attacks, as “the resistance,” along with the toolkit’s assertion that “Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” 

The ACLU said that “under basic free speech principles, such statements are constitutionally protected” as political advocacy and do not constitute “material support for terrorism.”

The ACLU added that “in the absence of any indication that these student organizations have themselves engaged in unlawful activity, or violated valid university policies, both the First Amendment and bedrock principles of academic freedom stand firmly against any attempts to punish them for their protected speech and associations.”

The ACLU cited the McCarthy era as a cautionary example of why “ideologically motivated efforts to police speech” can “destroy the foundation on which academic communities are built.” U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy led a witch hunt in the 1950s to find Communist Party members and sympathizers, resulting in hundreds of Americans going to jail and thousands losing their jobs — including individuals who worked for the government, in Hollywood and at universities. Many of those targeted were Jewish.

“A college or university, whether public or private, cannot fulfill its mission as a forum for vigorous debate if its leaders initiate baseless investigations into those who express disfavored or even loathsome views,” the ACLU said. “Such investigations chill speech, foster an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, and betray the spirit of free inquiry, which is based on the power to persuade rather than the power to punish.”

The ADL said that the comparison to McCarthyism was “offensive and frankly, naïve. We are not talking about so-called ideological differences; we are talking about actual threats of violence directed towards Jewish students. Frankly, we would rather the see the ACLU spend its time defending the rights of Jewish students to attend school safely and free from the threat of violence.”

SJP did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

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