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US civil rights group calls on colleges to safeguard free speech amid ongoing Gaza conflict

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A leading civil rights organization in the United States, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), has issued a plea to colleges and universities across the nation, urging them to uphold the principles of free speech and resist pressures to probe or dismantle student groups advocating for Palestinian rights.

In an open letter addressed to academic institutions, the ACLU cautioned against politically motivated attempts to monitor and restrict speech on campuses, emphasizing the importance of preserving the foundation upon which academic communities are established.

This call comes at a time of heightened tensions within American academia, coinciding with the 26th day of the Israel-Hamas conflict. Some campuses have reported increasing pressure to suppress criticism of Israel’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza, where an estimated 8,796 Palestinians have lost their lives.

The ACLU’s letter states, “A college or university, whether public or private, cannot fulfill its mission as a forum for vigorous debate if its leaders initiate baseless investigations into those who express disfavored or even loathsome views. Such investigations chill speech, foster an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, and betray the spirit of free inquiry, which is based on the power to persuade rather than the power to punish.”

Threats to University Funding

Since the outbreak of the war on October 7, discussions surrounding the conflict have intensified on college campuses.

Republican politicians have taken a strong stance against critics of Israel at universities, even going as far as threatening to withhold federal funding if campus administrators do not take action against Palestinian rights activism. For instance, Senator Tim Scott, a Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential race, has introduced legislation to withdraw federal education funding from colleges and universities promoting antisemitism, citing a Palestinian literature festival at the University of Pennsylvania as an example.

Furthermore, the State University System of Florida has called for the dismantling of chapters affiliated with the advocacy group Students for Justice in Palestine (SPJ), claiming alleged links to “terrorist groups.” This decision, as announced by the state university system, was made in consultation with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another Republican presidential contender. Pro-Israel groups, the Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center, have also issued a joint letter to universities, calling for investigations into Students for Justice in Palestine.

The ADL’s letter states, “We call on university leaders to immediately investigate their campus SJP chapters regarding whether they have improper funding sources, have violated the school code of conduct, have violated state or federal laws, and/or are providing material support to Hamas, a Foreign Terrorist Organization.” It also warns that failure to check the activities of SJP chapters may violate the legal rights of Jewish students to be free of harassment and discrimination on campus.

ACLU Rejects Calls for Investigations

On Wednesday, the ACLU explicitly rejected the Anti-Defamation League’s call for “sweeping investigations” into student organizations.

The organization acknowledged that the conflict in Gaza has had a disruptive impact on campuses across the country, leading to increased threats and concerns about personal safety. Many advocates for Palestinian rights have reported tactics of intimidation, public shaming, and being doxxed, which involves the public dissemination of personal information, often online. Some students also fear that their career prospects may be jeopardized if they speak out. For example, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month titled “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students,” referring to student activists opposing Zionism.

Jewish students have also reported incidents of antisemitism, including violent online threats at Cornell University, a prestigious Ivy League institution. On Wednesday, police arrested a 21-year-old Cornell student, Patrick Dai, over posts that threatened to kill and rape Jewish individuals.

The ACLU emphasized that, while it does not take sides in overseas conflicts, it strongly opposes efforts to curb free speech, free association, and academic freedom within the United States. In the name of these principles, the ACLU called on academic institutions to resist calls for investigations, disbandment, or penalties imposed on student groups exercising their rights to free speech.

The ACLU also expressed disapproval of the Florida university system’s decision to deactivate its Students for Justice in Palestine chapters, stating, “In the absence of any indication that these student organizations have themselves engaged in unlawful activity or violated valid university policies, both the First Amendment and bedrock principles of academic freedom stand firmly against any attempts to punish them for their protected speech and associations.” The ACLU concluded by urging institutions to uphold the best traditions of the country and reject baseless calls for investigations or penalties against student groups for exercising their free speech rights.

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