Universities called out for trying to suppress protests of Israel


(JTA) — Recent calls for civility in campus debates are a pretext to suppress free speech in protest of Israel, a pro-Palestinian legal advocacy group wrote in a letter.

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

It was addressed to John Kelly, the president of Florida Atlantic University, which attracted criticism last year for disciplining students who protested a lecture by an Israeli soldier.

The letter noted 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 the chancellor at the University of California, Berkeley, 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.

It was coauthored by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Council on American-Islamic Relations, the National Lawyers Guild and the Center for Constitutional Rights.

The letter argued that civility is 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,” it said. “[I]ndeed, it has recently been deployed to castigate students or faculty members who express criticism of the Israeli occupation.”

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