Letter: CCR and Partners Inform Over 140 Universities That There is No Civility Exception to the First Amendment

CCR and its partners – including Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, the National Lawyers Guild, Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, and others – submitted a letter to over 140 universities on November 4, 2014 cautioning administrators against heeding calls to censor or stifle expression criticizing the state of Israel or advocating for Palestinian human rights.

Acknowledging the pressure on universities to police and punish viewpoints critiquing Israel, the letter offers legal guidelines to help schools respond. The letter emphasizes that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR) has soundly rejected allegations that advocacy for Palestinian rights constitutes harassment of Jewish students under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

The letter also warns universities against the now endemic use of the vague and highly subjective concept of “civility” as a tool to limit free speech on campus, specifically speech that is critical of the Israeli occupation.  This term has been used recently by university administrators to justify the termination of Professor Steven Salaita’s tenured appointment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; to condemn political expression at Ohio State University; and in remarks by Chancellor Dirks at UC Berkeley attempting to define the boundaries of campus speech – ironically on the anniversary of the Free Speech Movement.

Emphasizing the university’s obligation to protect the free speech of its students and faculty, the letter states:

Debate, disagreement, and free expression, including protests, demonstrations, and other expressive activities, embody the highest values of a free university and a democratic society. We hope your university—through its policies, public statements, and actions—will treat freedom of speech not as a burden or a legal limitation, but rather, as a foundational value that enables searching scholarship and democratic governance.

The letter comes at a time when students’ rights to advocate for Palestine are increasingly threatened. This past year, Students for Justice in Palestine chapters across the country have been told to dilute their message, told not to use the word “Palestine,” burdened with fines and security fees for their events, accused of “incivility” and anti-Semitism, investigated and suspended for time-honored forms of political protest, and more.

In the coming weeks, the group of civil rights organizations will send a second batch of letters to dozens more universities where Students for Justice in Palestine chapters are active and their speech rights are under threat.

To read the full letter, click here. (The letter at this link is directed to the President of Florida Atlantic University, a school with a history of unlawfully punishing students who advocate for Palestinian rights.)





Last modified 

November 10, 2014