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Pro-Palestinian Groups Hit Back at ‘Civility’ Bans

Palestine Solidarity Legal Support issued a public letter to universities protesting that recent calls for “civility” in campus debates were simply a pretext to suppress free speech in protest of Israel.

In the letter, dated Monday, PSLS and its partners, including several civil rights organizations, cited several recent incidents to argue that the concept of civility has, of late, been invoked to limit the extent of free speech.

The letter pointed, in particular, to the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s withdrawal of a tenure offer to Professor Steven Salaita over a series of stridently anti-Israel tweets, a recent statement by UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks suggesting that free speech can only truly exist in the context of civility, and a statement by the president of Ohio University calling for civility in the wake of a controversial “blood bucket challenge” video issued by the student senate president to call for an Israel boycott.

The letter, which was coauthored by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the National Lawyers Guild, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, was addressed to John Kelly, the president of Florida Atlantic University. FAU attracted criticism last year for disciplining students who protested a lecture by an Israel Defense Forces soldier.

The PSLS letter argues that civility not a necessary component for free speech according to the First Amendment, federal civil rights law, or the Department of Education.

“Because the concept of “civility” is so elastic, it risks being applied unfairly and selectively on the basis of political disagreement,” the legal organizations stated in their letter. “[I]ndeed, it has recently been deployed to castigate students or faculty members who express criticism of the Israeli occupation.”

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