Pro-Palestine students in US colleges facing discrimination

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Students demand ‘End all US aid to Israel’ outside the University of Florida in Gainesville

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), with a storied history of over a century in defending civil rights and liberties, has voiced concerns over the escalating tensions on campuses due to the ongoing Israeli mass murder of Palestinians.

The organisation acknowledged the rise in reported threats against students and faculty of Jewish, Palestinian, Muslim, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent, emphasising the serious nature of these threats to personal safety.

The ACLU’s letter responds to recent claims by the Anti-Defamation League and The Louis D. Brandeis Centre for Human Rights Under Law, which suggested that pro-Palestine student groups are providing material support to Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist organisation.

These claims were made without providing evidence and have led to calls for sweeping investigations into these student groups under US law, specifically 18 U.S.C. §§ 2339A and 2339B, and state analogues.

The ACLU has declared that it stands firmly against efforts that would stifle free speech, free association, and academic freedom within the United States.

In their letter, they have urged educational institutions to resist calls for investigations or penalties against student groups based on their exercise of free speech rights.

They argue that all students should be granted equal access to education without facing harassment or discrimination.

Drawing parallels with the McCarthy era, the ACLU warns against ideologically motivated policing of campus speech, highlighting the destructive impact such actions can have on the foundational principles of academic communities.

They remind college leaders of the Supreme Court’s stance in Healy v. James, which upheld the rights of student groups to free speech and association, free from censorship by public university officials.

The ACLU’s concern is not purely theoretical; they cite a recent directive from the Florida State University System Chancellor, who, in consultation with Governor DeSantis, called for the deactivation of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters at public universities in Florida.

This action was based on Florida’s material support for terrorism statute and an assertion that a ‘toolkit’ released by the National SJP expressed support for terrorism.

The ACLU also clarified that while it does not approve of statements endorsing violence, such expressions are constitutionally protected under free speech principles.

University officials may criticise or condemn such statements, but they do not constitute material support for terrorism.

The letter concludes with a call for university presidents to uphold the traditions of the United States by rejecting baseless investigations and punishments of student groups for their protected speech and associations.

Meanwhile, within the United States, student-led initiatives have been pivotal in many mobilisations, voicing demands for a cease-fire, grieving over the escalating Palestinian casualties due to Israeli airstrikes and weaponry funded by the US, and expressing staunch solidarity with the Palestinian cause for autonomy and freedom.

These college students, who have courageously condemned the violence and stood with the Palestinians, report experiences of doxxing, vilification, job termination, and allegations equating their activism with terrorism by educational institutions, employers, pro-Zionist groups, and politicians.

‘At the end of the day we understand these things as scare tactics,’ shared Stephen Hamad, an alias used by a student activist from the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at George Washington University, reflecting on the intensified repression amidst these circumstances. ‘I think there’s particularly a reason why they focus so much of this repression on the student movement. And that in our eyes is because they understand the student movement as being a significant material threat to the Zionist entity and to the entities that are currently supporting this ongoing genocide.’

In the wake of their vigil commemorating Palestinian lives lost, Hamad’s SJP group has come under intense examination by their university, the media, and various external entities. The university president decried any form of endorsement of terrorism or rhetoric that venerates violence, responding to the event in a statement.

Hamad also articulated that despite decades of such ‘scare tactics,’ there is a conscious choice among them not to seek refuge in US societal institutions but to find safety within a framework of mutual support and community-led collective action, encouraging students to persist in their vocal stand against genocide and ethnic cleansing.

The narrative continued with Ryna Workman, President of the Student Law Association at NYU, who, after the October 7 incidents in Israel, faced significant repercussions for their solidarity with Palestine, including the withdrawal of a job offer from a prominent law firm. Workman reported to Democracy Now! an onslaught of ‘hateful, racist, transphobic, and queerphobic messages’, which have escalated over time, spotlighting the pervasive fear among students that their futures could be jeopardised for similar advocacy.

Matthew Stein, another law student from Drexel Law School, who also opted for a pseudonym, was identified as an anti-Zionist jew. Despite sensing overall support for Palestine among his peers, Stein voiced a collective apprehension that public expression of these views could threaten their careers. His concerns were heightened when he observed attempts to film participants during a national student walkout, fearing it was a tactic aimed at doxxing.

The response from educational leaders has been mixed, with some offering support for free speech while also maintaining a stance that any actions against doxxing would infringe upon the doxxers’ own speech rights. Drexel University’s president conveyed a message of free speech endorsement but also invoked a policy that equated anti-Israel sentiment with threats to safety and well-being, a subjective interpretation that Stein fears could suppress legitimate criticism of Israel.

Oren Panovka, an anti-Zionist jew at Emory University, chose to use his real name to underscore the political significance of speaking out against Israel’s punitive measures towards Palestinians.

He said: ‘As a jewish student I reject the notion that Emory Stop Cop City (ESCC) or any of those of us there protesting today were anti-semitic.

‘This is an obvious ploy by the university to divert attention away from us demanding an end to the systemic violence this institution regularly practices.’

Stop Cop City (SCC), is a movement in Atlanta, Georgia, United States, whose goal is to stop construction of the Atlanta Public Safety Training Centre by the Atlanta Police Foundation and the City of Atlanta.

The protesters marched from Asbury Circle through the Quad to Convocation Hall, where students involved with ESCC addressed the crowd on the building’s steps.

The speakers led chants like ‘Free, free Palestine’ and ‘Cop City will never be built,’ in addition to ‘From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’.

At 2:55 pm, about 40 attendees entered the building and occupied the foyer and staircase inside Convocation Hall.

About a half hour later, Director of Presidential Initiatives and Special Projects, Anjulet Tucker entered the building to accept a list of demands from the protesters. Tucker remained silent while she received the demands and the protesters left the building to return to the Quad shortly after.

On the same day as the walk-out, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis issued an order to deactivate SJP chapters across the state. Despite this, Shelby Rodríguez, a pseudonymous student from Florida International University, described a well-attended rally that faced both counter-protesters and a disconcerting police presence, with overheard remarks about assaulting Palestinian supporters.

Muslim and Arab student organisers are sounding alarms over the heightened risks associated with their activism, reporting increased surveillance and policing, particularly against those visibly identifying as Muslim or Arab. Samar Awad, another student under a pseudonym from Wellesley College, emphasised the elevated security measures faced by Muslim and Arab students on campus, which have marked them for increased scrutiny.

California State University, Los Angeles, students have responded to Pro-Israeli graffiti with a teach-in, signalling a determination to establish an SJP chapter despite national efforts to criminalise the movement.