Last month, a group of students at the University of California, Irvine gathered to protest a screening of the film Beneath the Helmet, a documentary about the lives of recruits in the Israeli Defense Forces. Upset about the screening of a film they viewed as propaganda for a foreign military, the students were also protesting the presence of several IDF representatives who were holding a panel discussion at the screening.
That student protest has since become the subject of intense controversy. The school’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine is now facing the possibility of being banned from the campus. In addition, a legal representative for some of the students involved in the protest, Tarek Shawky, told The Intercept that the students were informed by the university that their cases have been referred to the district attorney for criminal investigation.
The day after the event, the school’s chancellor released a statement accusing student protestors of “crossing the line of civility.” In his statement, posted on the school website, Chancellor Howard Gillman said that “while this university will protect freedom of speech, that right is not absolute,” adding that the school would examine possible legal and administrative charges against the protestors. News reports cited claims that attendees at the film had been intimidated and blocked from exiting the event.
The protestors at the event represented a wide range of student groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Black Student Union. Students who spoke with The Intercept denied that anyone had intimidated attendees at the event or blocked access. “We held our protest in a way that reflected university guidelines; we didn’t use amplified sound and we didn’t restrict anyone’s freedom of access to the event,” says Daniel Carnie, a member of Jewish Voice for Peace who took part in the protest.
Contacted for comment, a media relations representative at UC Irvine said that it was normal practice for cases like this to be referred to the district attorney. “It is routine for UC Irvine Police Department, when called upon to investigate an incident on campus, to forward the investigation to the district attorney’s office,” said Cathy Lawhon. “It’s then up to the DA’s office to determine if any charges are warranted.” Lawhon added that the school investigation into banning Students for Justice in Palestine was proceeding separately.
Reached for comment, the Orange County District Attorney stated that they have yet to receive a referral on the case from the school.
The incident is only the latest in which officials at UC Irvine and other major universities around the country have taken harsh measures against pro-Palestinian activists. “There is a really ugly history of targeting student groups advocating for Palestinian issues,” says Liz Jackson, a staff attorney with Palestine Legal, a group that provides legal advice and advocacy to individuals in the U.S. advocating for Palestinian rights. “It suppresses the really important debates about U.S. foreign policy that young people need to be having. Instead of being able to engage freely and voice opinions that challenge the status quo, one side of the debate is just being crushed.”
A report issued last year by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights documented 152 incidents of free-speech suppression on U.S. campuses in 2014. These incidents have included acts of censorship, threats of legal action, and even accusations of support for terrorism. Citing the threat posed to the First Amendment by such acts, the report added that they were “undermin[ing] the traditional role of universities in promoting the free expression of unpopular ideas and encouraging challenges to the orthodoxies prevalent in official political discourse.”
Threats, punishment, and intimidation are all being routinely used to stifle dissenting viewpoints on Israel-Palestine, says Omar Shakir, a fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights and a co-author of the report. “University officials are erecting bureaucratic actions to make it harder to hold certain events, imposing administrative sanctions and even firing and denying tenure to professors for their views on Israel-Palestine, efforts that collectively represent a grave threat to the First Amendment.”
For instance, Native American studies professor Steven Salaita lost his tenured faculty position at the University of Illinois in 2014 after being accused of incivility in his online comments on Israel-Palestine. After a public legal battle, last year the school settled a lawsuit filed by Salaita for financial compensation.
In the case of UC Irvine, Shakir adds that the university’s charge of “incivility” on the part of protestors is a particularly egregious attempt to stifle protected speech. “Accusations of incivility have always been used by those in power to justify attempts to suppress changes to the status quo,” Shakir says. “The term itself, ‘civility,’ represents coded language that in the past has been used to try and suppress groups deemed ‘uncivilized,’ like Native Americans and African-Americans in the United States. It has no place being used as a basis to silence student activists today.”
Those views were partly echoed by Ari Cohn, a lawyer with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a campus free-speech organization. “If allegations that protestors at UC Irvine disrupted the event are substantiated, that would not be protected speech, as it would impinge on the speech of others attending the event,” Cohn said. He added, however, that “civility in itself cannot be mandated by schools. Incivility plays a fundamental role in much of the social activism on campuses.”
Threats to speech have come not only from university administrations but from law enforcement as well. In 2010, Osama Shabaik was among a group of 11 students at UC Irvine who were arrested after protesting an appearance by then-Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren at the school. Oren’s speaking event came roughly a year after Operation Cast Lead, a three-week Israeli military campaign against the Gaza Strip that killed hundreds of civilians. Intent on making a point about the inappropriate nature of Oren’s appearance following the attack, Shabaik and others organized a protest to disrupt the event.
In an incident that was captured on video, Shabaik and several other students repeatedly stood up in the crowd to interrupt Oren’s speech, chanting slogans against Israeli military abuses during Cast Lead. The students were detained and ejected from the event, something Shabaik says they had expected. But what came next was stunning. The school administration referred the students to the police, filing misdemeanor criminal charges against them for disrupting the event. The charges carried a maximum of one year in prison for each of those who protested.
The following year the case went to court, where Shabaik and nine other students were convicted and sentenced to three years probation.
“The administration was definitely sending a message and implicitly threatening our futures by having us charged as criminals for protesting,” reflects Shabaik today. “A lot of those who were charged were students planning to go on to medical school or law school, and they were worried that having a criminal record would prevent that from happening.”
Shabaik has since gone on to graduate from Harvard Law School, but he is concerned about how his criminal record could affect his future employment prospects. Looking back at the incident, he believes it helped inaugurate a high-level campaign to silence dissent on Israel-Palestine in the United States, which has extended to state legislatures.
Earlier this month, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order that would force public institutions in New York to divest funds from groups supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The executive order has been criticized as a form of political blacklisting. Shabaik believes Cuomo’s proposal echoes his own experience, where powerful institutions and public figures have sought to quash dissent on this issue.
“It’s important to understand duality of responses when it comes to free speech. The whole essence of free speech is to challenge power and push back against government repression,” says Shabaik. “The move to stop debate on this issue is now leading to crackdowns at state-funded colleges and universities and even at the state legislature level. People are facing serious threats to their future for speaking out against the status quo.”
In recent years, a movement has grown, mostly on the political right, that charges that free speech is being endangered on American college campuses. The most prominent voices on this issue have been conservative activists like Breitbart journalist Milo Yiannopoulos and Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro. But liberal writers such as Jonathan Chait have also relentlessly fixated on the idea that “political correctness” is stifling free expression among a new generation of students.
Most of these protestations have focused on a specific type of speech: the right to “offend” by speaking against perceived left-wing orthodoxies on race, feminism, and cultural issues. The charges of speech suppression in such cases have generally not been leveled at university administrators or law enforcement, but rather at students who view such speech as offensive. This differs markedly from the Israel-Palestine controversies, where state-funded bureaucracies and government officials have been involved in stifling speech on an issue directly related to American foreign policy.
“It’s important to distinguish between the idea that certain views are not popular on campuses, something that may be worthy of discussion separately, and the phenomenon of public institutions and officials taking direct action to restrict speech about vital aspects of government policy,” says Shakir of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “The core of the First Amendment defends the right to free speech on campuses, and we should all be concerned when McCarthy-esque tactics are being used by those in positions of power to silence debate on issues of global importance.”