Palestine Legal Responded to Nearly 300 Incidents in 2014-2015; 85 Percent Targeted Students and Scholars on More Than 65 College Campuses
September 30, 2015 - A new report, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US,” released today by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), documents for the first time the widespread and growing suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy in the United States. An accompanying video features students and scholars discussing the backlash they have experienced for engaging in Palestine advocacy.
Palestine Legal, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the civil rights of people in the U.S. who speak out for Palestinian freedom, responded to nearly 300 incidents over an 18-month period. Eighty-five percent of the incidents—which included baseless legal complaints, administrative disciplinary actions, firings, harassment, and false accusations of terrorism and antisemitism—targeted students and scholars across the country. Driven by a network of Israel advocacy organizations, these efforts target the movement for Palestinian rights in the U.S., which has grown significantly over the last decade.
“In the U.S. we have free speech rights that are meant to protect those who challenge the status quo, yet some groups who defend Israel’s policies are attempting to strip those protections from Palestinian rights activists,” explains Dima Khalidi, Palestine Legal’s founding director and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The tactics being used across the country to silence one side of a debate undermine both First Amendment and democratic principles.”
The report includes dozens of case studies, as well as testimony from advocates who have been targeted for their speech. Professor Steven Salaita, whose tenured faculty position was terminated by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign over personal tweets criticizing Israel’s 2014 assault on Gaza, says in the report: “When I got that email I was just destroyed. I was crushed. Everything had been arranged for our move. Our son...had been enrolled in a daycare in Urbana, on campus in fact.... We were left without health insurance.... and so we were constantly worried about what would happen if the need for medical attention arose.”
“Attacks like the one I experienced are an attempt to place a high price on student advocacy for Palestinian freedom,” said Rahim Kurwa, a doctoral candidate at UCLA who is quoted in the report. “Even if they fail to shut down your activism, they can frighten, intimidate, and wear you down. It often feels like anti-Palestinian groups try to make an example out of us in order to discourage other students from joining the movement.”
The report also outlines a notable increase in federal and state legislative efforts to condemn or restrict advocacy for Palestinian human rights, including legislation that conflates criticism of Israeli policy with antisemitism.
“Whether by suing volunteer food co-op board members for boycotting Israeli goods, firing a tenured professor for tweeting about Gaza, or punishing students for taking action on behalf of Palestinian rights, efforts to silence criticism of Israel's human rights violations are widespread and organized,” said Maria LaHood, deputy legal director of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “But the U.S. movement for Palestinian rights will not be silenced―in fact, it continues to grow despite increasing intimidation.”
Summary of key findings
- In 2014, Palestine Legal responded to over 150 incidents of censorship, punishment or other burdening of advocacy for Palestinian rights. In the first six months of 2015 alone, Palestine Legal responded to 140 such incidents. During this 18-month period, Palestine Legal received more than 100 requests for legal assistance.
- The overwhelming majority of these incidents—85 percent—targeted students and scholars, a reaction to the increasingly central role universities play in the movement for Palestinian rights.
- Common documented tactics used against advocates for Palestinian rights across the country include: false and inflammatory accusations of antisemitism and support for terrorism; racial slurs and death threats; threats to academic freedom; cancellations of events and suspension of student organizations; lawsuits and legal threats; legislation; and criminal investigations and prosecutions.
The report urges universities to review policies to ensure they protect academic freedom and to hear concerns from students targeted by these attacks that are in many cases leading to lasting emotional, financial, and professional repercussions.
It also urges Congress, state legislatures, and government agencies to clearly distinguish between criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism in their definitions, policies and legislation.
Another report on the silencing of speech related to Israel/Palestine was released today by Jewish Voice for Peace, one of the fastest-growing Jewish membership organizations in America. “Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-Semitism to Limit the Debate over Israel on Campus” documents efforts by Israel advocacy organizations to shut down debate over Israeli policies on campuses. You can read the full report here.
The Center for Constitutional Rights works with communities under threat to fight for justice and liberation through litigation, advocacy, and strategic communications. Since 1966, the Center for Constitutional Rights has taken on oppressive systems of power, including structural racism, gender oppression, economic inequity, and governmental overreach. Learn more at ccrjustice.org.