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Northeastern U. Duel Over Pro-Palestinian Group Mirrors Nationwide Fight

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.

Unlike the Barnard case, SJP’s distribution of the mock eviction notices at NEU was unauthorized. It moreover came after the campus chapter was put on probation for earlier activities. The probation ruling, in turn, followed letters sent to the school by the Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America complaining about the group’s activities.

The latest decision, suspending SJP for the eviction notices, followed complaints made to the school by the campus Hillel center and some individual students.

The idea that pressure from supporters of Israel was provoking such actions against SJP activism — a cause and effect denied by the administration in NEU’s case — especially irked Silverglate, who is co-founder and chairman of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a group devoted to campus free speech.

“Pro-Israel supporters should be relying on making arguments that have great historical and intellectual heft, rather than seeking to squelch the other side,” he said. “It is a very disturbing development, as a Jew, to see them resorting to censorship and thinking that this buys support for Israel. It doesn’t, it just makes the pro-Israel argument harder.”

Silverglate called it “laughable” for administrators to claim that students were terrified by the eviction notices — in his view a clear form of symbolic speech and protest.

“I don’t blame [SJP] students for not following the rules,” he said. “It’s like in Russia or China when you have to get permission to hold a protest. I believe the administrators scrubbed the student handbook looking for something they can hang their hat on.”

One pro-Israel group was proud to have put pressure on the administration to act against the SJP. Americans for Peace and Tolerance, a Boston-based organization co-founded and headed by local activist Charles Jacobs, made three videos documenting what it called a record of “Islamic extremism, anti-Semitism, and anti-Zionism at Northeastern University.”

NEU President Joseph Aoun “made a campus-wide comment that anti-Semitism won’t be tolerated” when he put SJP on probation last year, Jacobs told the Forward. “Then they did the fake eviction notices; this is the straw that has broken the camel’s back.”

Larry Lowenthal, adjunct professor of Jewish Studies at Northeastern and former director of the Boston office of the American Jewish Committee, said the university administration was in a delicate position and prone to criticism no matter what it decided about the SJP chapter.

“I’m all for open debate on the Middle East issue, no matter how vehement it might get,” he said. “But when dialog spills out into vehement disruption of other people’s rights, a line has to be drawn.”

But just where does “dialog” end and “vehement disruption” begin? That is very much what lies at the core of the national controversy.

In September 2011, 10 University of California-Irvine students were convicted on misdemeanor counts for disrupting a speech on campus by Israel’s then-ambassador to Washington, Michael Oren. The students took turns shouting him down and then being led out of the lecture hall, forcing Oren to curtail his one hour speech to 12 minutes. California’s state Supreme Court later affirmed the trial court’s decision.

Nothing of that sort has happened at NEU, a campus of some 27,000 students. But last year, the campus SJP chapter was put on probation for a silent walkout at the start of a presentation on campus by Israeli soldiers. A few months later, the administration accused the group of plastering a statue Robert Shilling, an NEU graduate and major donor to the school, with pro-Palestinian stickers. Shillman is also a major donor to ZOA. The Jewish advocacy group, in fact, copied Shillman on the letter of complaint about SJP that it sent to the university.

Max Geller, the leader of the school’s SJP chapter, said his organization was unfairly targeted by the administration for violating minor rules in the student handbook. He said the group distributed its mock notices generally and did not target Jewish students; it was simply looking to raise awareness about the issues.

“We didn’t get proper authorization for our fliers, but nobody gets proper authorization for fliers,” he said. “The only time the university enforces this policy is when it’s Students for Justice in Palestine doing it. It amounts to viewpoint discrimination and selective enforcement.”

University spokeswoman Renata Nyul denied this. SJP’s suspension was due to the group’s repeated violations of university rules, she said.

“The issue here is not one of free speech or the exchange of disparate ideas,” Nyul said. “Instead, it is about holding every member of our community to the same standards, and addressing SJP’S non-compliance with longstanding policies to which all student organizations at Northeastern are required to adhere.”

Dorm distribution of fake eviction notices has become something of a staple in the playbook of pro-Palestinian groups around the country. But NEU is the first campus to penalize students for this tactic. Last year, the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee posted eviction notices on dorm doors. The year before, students at Florida Atlantic University and at Rutgers posted the same notices on their campuses. All three incidents were investigated. But none of the schools took any actions against the groups involved.

Silverglate said he thought the SJP students had a legal case notwithstanding Herbeck’s point that NEU was a private university, not a public or government entity.

“Under Massachusetts state law a private university (such as Northeastern) is obligated to treat its students with a certain minimal degree of fairness, and it seems to me that Northeastern fails this test,” he wrote in an email. “Further…as a liberal arts university purportedly devoted to academic freedom, [NEU] has an arguable implied contractual agreement with its students to grant them such freedom.”

Silverglate added: “Normally in American academia it is pro-Israel speech that is squelched and pro-Palestinian speech that is encouraged by faculty who have very little respect for free speech. But this case, the shoe is on the other foot.”

On March 18, some 200 students staged a protest on the edge of the NEU campus to protest the school’s action. They were careful not to step on campus property; NEU prohibits protests on its campus grounds from any unregistered groups that have not received prior approval.

Alan Dershowitz, the civil liberties lawyer and Harvard Law professor, declined to comment on the issue.

Contact Cara Hogan at [email protected]

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