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Criminalization of First Amendment-Protected Pro-Palestinian Speech Is Spreading

As Israel ramps up its genocide of Palestinians, the critical voices that most need to be heard are being silenced.

Protesters with flags and banners gather to show their solidarity with Palestinians and to condemn Israeli attacks over Gaza, in New York, on November 7, 2023.

New York University law student Ryna Workman was removed as president of the Student Bar Association last month and had a job offer rescinded after expressing “unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance against oppression toward liberation and self-determination” and assigning blame to the system of apartheid in Israel for “the tremendous loss of life.”

The following week, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered the deactivation of Students for Justice in Palestine chapters in Florida after State University System Chancellor Ray Rodrigues sent a memo to the presidents of the University System insinuating that SJP’s political statements qualified as “material support to a foreign terrorist organization,” a felony under Florida’s penal code.

Two days later, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights published an open letter to nearly 200 colleges and universities, asking them to investigate the activities of SJP chapters on their campuses, including for “materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization,” a violation of federal law.

The week after that, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul authorized $75 million to police for surveillance and investigation and called for the review of City University of New York’s (CUNY) policies and procedures regarding antisemitism. The CUNY student body has long been active in the movement for a free Palestine.

Undeterred by the backlash, college students at more than 100 college campuses have walked out in protest as part of a broad coalition of groups, calling for a ceasefire in Gaza and for the universities to sever ties to arms manufacturers providing weapons to Israel.

As hundreds of thousands protest both nationally and internationally, surveillance and potential criminalization of political speech is ramping up. We see this not only in the examples above but also in Virginia Attorney General Jason Miyares’s recent announcement of an investigation into American Muslims for Palestine, a nonprofit organization focused on education and advocacy related to Palestinians.

Still, from loss of jobs, to doxing and even political prosecutions, the heavy scrutiny and repression of pro-Palestinian speech existed long before October 7.

As hundreds of thousands protest both nationally and internationally, surveillance and potential criminalization of political speech is ramping up.

Just in September, the University of Pennsylvania-hosted Palestine Writes Literature Festival was nearly shut down over allegations that the festival was “antisemitic.” As an attendee of this festival, I can state from firsthand experience that these allegations were manifestly false, defamatory, and designed to suppress speech and expression. The festival aimed to uplift the voices of Palestinian writers and activists and draw attention to the plight of the Palestinian people, both living under occupation and in the diaspora. Now, there are even calls for University of Pennsylvania President Elizabeth Magill to resign for failing to cancel the event.

Further, we should remember that the anonymously run online blacklist, Canary Mission, was first founded in 2014. The site routinely singles out pro-Palestine advocates, labels them “antisemites,” and attempts to silence their speech and activism. Many of those identified by the website have been denied entry to Palestine, harassed, and either terminated from jobs or subjected to additional scrutiny as a result. The Federal Bureau of Investigation has even used Canary Mission’s dossier to identify and surveil activists.

Whether carried out by private individuals, entities or the government, policing speech to ensure that certain voices are silenced is not new. Similar tactics were used to monitor and silence political expression by schools against students active in the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War. At universities, students were regularly arrested for their speech and demonstrations.

Created in the 1950s, COINTELPRO, the FBI’s counterintelligence program, was designed to disrupt, discredit and defame political dissidents. The program has mutated into different iterations but its core tactics continue — targeting Black Lives Matter and environmental activists, and in the case of Muslims post-9/11, inventing the very “terrorist plots” it later foils.

Branding speech which advocates for the human rights of Palestinians as “antisemitic,” or potentially providing “material support to terrorists,” and then doxing, surveilling or even charging people on that basis has dangerous implications for First Amendment rights to speech, association and assembly. We see that same pattern repeating now, post-October 7.

Whether carried out by private individuals, entities or the government, policing speech to ensure that certain voices are silenced is not new.

Israel’s Diaspora Ministry has begun to allege that LaunchGood, the largest fundraising platform frequented by Muslims both domestically and internationally, has ties to Hamas. Criminalizing humanitarian aid, particularly to the denizens of Gaza, once again places law-abiding citizens and nonprofit organizations in the crosshairs of law enforcement, at risk of prosecution simply for supporting humanitarian relief efforts.

To be clear, true antisemitism should not be tolerated in any form. However, adopting a false paradigm in which advocating for Palestinian human rights is considered antisemitic is disingenuous at best. At worst, it leads to the type of hate crime that resulted in a 6-year-old Palestinian boy being fatally stabbed 26 times by his landlord in a suburb south of Chicago.

Even in this dismal time, there is hope. In response to the ADL/Brandeis letter asking for SJP to be investigated, the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to more than 650 colleges, urging leaders to “reject calls to investigate, disband, or penalize student groups on the basis of their exercise of free speech rights.”

With more than 10,000 Palestinians killed in the last month, Israel’s indiscriminate bombing of refugee camps, and an ever-widening ground invasion in Gaza, it’s critical that student activists and people at large can gather, protest and exercise their right to speak freely.

When political speech is criminalized, it renders the First Amendment meaningless. Collectively, we must demand that universities and colleges continue to honor student organizations’ right to freedom of expression, and we must demand the same from our elected officials and law enforcement. Now is not the time for silence.

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