Stifling student voices

By Yvonne Abraham

 |  Globe Columnist

  June 13, 2013

It’s not the ’60s anymore.

Colleges used to be hotbeds of political activity, combative marketplaces of ideas. Now they’re overpriced country clubs with climbing walls, sushi, and a culture of enforced politeness that is downright depressing.

Which makes a dispute playing out at Northeastern University especially remarkable, and significant. It began in April, when the school’s Students for Justice in Palestine staged a walkout at a presentation by Israeli soldiers. At the start of the event, 35 students stood, small signs taped to their shirts. One member called the soldiers war criminals. One or two chanted slogans. They were gone in a minute.

For this protest, SJP has been placed on probation, and will be suspended indefinitely for further transgressions. They must also create a civility statement, laying down rules for future conduct.

Northeastern says the group was sanctioned purely because it failed to get a permit for its demonstration, which the school requires at least seven days in advance. The students say the university has targeted them for their views.

“The university is concerned about its image,” says Tori Porell, an SJP leader. “Some people are trying to smear them as anti-Semitic, so they’re attempting to stop anything seen as controversial.”

University officials knew about the protest beforehand, and e-mailed SJP to urge “respect and decorum,” directing them not to bring in signs, and to “discourage vocal disruption.” The students believed the small signs on their chests complied with that directive, and say they did not encourage chanting. They say the e-mail was tacit permission to proceed, even without a formal permit.

They say they’re being singled out, citing a 2010 protest by Huskies for Israel, in which students disrupted a speech by controversial pro-Palestinian author Norman Finkelstein, and escaped sanctions. The university says the pro-Israel group was not sanctioned because it had a permit.

But if all that is at issue here is whether or not they got the required permit, why is SJP now required to come up with a civility statement?

“When conflicts happen on campus they provide . . . a teachable moment,” says senior vice president Michael Armini. “This will help strengthen the leadership of the organization.”

It also leaves the strong impression that the nature of the protest itself was the problem.

“All of it operates to squelch speech in a place that ought to be teaching students about the role of dissent and vigorous debate in a free society,” says Sarah Wunsch, staff attorney for the ACLU of Massachusetts, which has taken up SJP’s cause. The New York-based Center for Constitutional Rights has also joined the fight, and is battling similar, increasingly common, disputes involving pro-Palestinian student groups across the country.

“This case was reviewed thoroughly,” Armini says. “We maintain that the sanction is completely appropriate.”

Here, my old friend Mike and I part ways. If the pro-Palestinian group is really being sanctioned purely for failing to follow procedural rules, it’s time to take another look at those rules. No signs or shouting at demonstrations? Those things are essential to protest, time-honored democratic traditions. A requirement that students get a permit a week ahead is especially onerous.

“Seven days’ notice is the difference between having one’s message heard and being last week’s news,” says Will Creeley, director of advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, which defends campus free-speech rights across the country. Mandating civility “should be anathema at a university that promises freedom of expression,” he says.

Balancing the right to protest against the need for decorum, Northeastern tilted too hard to the latter. The pro-Palestinian students – rare creatures willing to stand up for their beliefs – got a raw deal. And that should worry any student who would protest anything.

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at [email protected]