Guild Supports the Rights of Pro-Palestinian Campus Activists

Christopher Conway
Law for the People Intern

Palestinian activism on college campuses is being targeted and labeled as hate speech. Three University of California campuses have received complaints under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, or national origin, alleging that Palestinian student activism is anti-semitic, hostile, and highly offensive. Furthermore, the California legislature has passed both a bill and resolution which serve to chill pro-Palestinian activism and free speech. The NLG has challenged the complaints, the legislation, and the ensuing investigative procedures, arguing that they serve to suppress freedom of speech in support of Palestine or critical of Israel.

Photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy.

The civil rights complaints have been brought at UC Santa Cruz, UC Berkeley, and UC Irvine. When these types of complaints are received, the California Department of Education (DOE) engages in investigative procedures on behalf of those groups the Act is meant to protect. Standard DOE procedure puts each investigation within a 180 day timeframe. These particular investigations have proceeded years passed their deadlines, inducing a lingering fear in students of punitive action. Furthermore, each investigation has systematically failed to include the voices of the Palestinian students, excluding them and denying any insight into the procedures.

Though all three attempts have officially failed, the damage has been done in other ways. NLG member Liz Jackson attests to the fear and silencing that has resulted. Many of the students she organizes with are reluctant to engage in Palestinian activism or even identify themselves as activists, due to fear of being prosecuted, ostracized, and institutionally alienated. “Students at every level of activism are intimidated, chilled, and reluctant to speak out. They have to defend themselves against bogus complaints that are intended to distract them through bureaucratic obstacles,” said Jackson. “The allegations are very serious for activist students of color and the quality of democracy on campuses that used to hear these students’ voices.”

These investigations occur as backdrop to California House Resolution 35, passed in 2012. The bill encouraged UC schools to take strong action against anti-semitic and other hateful speech. However, it targets Palestinian activism on California college campuses, and falsely equates Palestinian rallies, guest-speakers, and film screenings with instances of swastikas being scrawled on Jewish student’s dorm rooms. California assembly bill ACR 76 (Aug, 2013) further threatened to suppress political speech, encouraging UC schools to control “hurtful” speech. These two problematic bills have been criticized by the NLG and other civil rights groups.

Most recently, an incident at San Francisco State University involving a firm anti-colonial message at the commemoration of the Edward Said mural elicited a typical response. The AMCHA Initiative, responsible for the UCSC complaints, has taken on this issue and attempts to frame it as antisemitic. The NLGSF has released an open letter urging SFSU’s president to uphold academic freedom and free speech in the face of pressure from groups like AMCHA.

It’s evident that there is a widespread campaign against Palestinian activism using various legal and institutional avenues, going far beyond the educational system itself. This campaign encourages fear and unfair bias towards pro-Palestinian activists as they are attacked on a governmental and institutional level for voicing their beliefs, which already face international oppression. Further, the crux of the attack is a false-equivalence of identity. All Jewish people are not Zionist, just as all Zionists are not Jewish. Antisemitism, though a very real, pervasive, and historical method of discrimination and persecution, cannot be equated with anti-Zionism – the same goes for Palestinian solidarity. Violent, degrading speech towards a religious group and ethnicity is not the same as speech critical of Israel or its policies. Liz Jackson identifies this as “a long series of attacks distort[ing] facts in order to try and prove a false theory: that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.”

If we are to encourage California college campuses as fosterers of free discourse, critical thought, and spaces of protected speech, this reckless conflation cannot continue to occur and the institutional assault on Palestinian activism must end. The misuse of Title VI of the CRA, HR 35, and ACR 76 all serve to suppress the rights of an already oppressed, minority group, and may lead to dangerous repercussions for all sorts of political discussion and debate on college campuses.