Washington, DC – A prominent civil rights group in the United States has urged colleges and universities to respect free speech and resist calls to investigate or disband student organisations rallying on behalf of Palestinian rights.
In an open letter to academic institutions on Wednesday, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) warned against politically motivated efforts to police speech on campus, which could “destroy the foundation on which academic communities are built”.
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The letter comes amid heightened tensions in US academia, as the Israel-Hamas war enters its 26th day. Some campuses are reporting pressure to crack down on critics of Israel’s ongoing military campaign in Gaza, where an estimated 8,796 Palestinians have been killed.
“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,” the ACLU letter reads.
“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 war on October 7, debates about the conflict have intensified on college campuses.
Republican politicians have targeted Israel’s critics at universities, going as far as threatening to withhold federal funds if campus administrators do not contain Palestinian rights activism.
Senator Tim Scott, a Republican candidate in the 2024 presidential race, has introduced legislation to “rescind federal education funding for colleges and universities that peddle antisemitism”, citing a Palestinian literature festival at the University of Pennsylvania as an example.
And the State University System of Florida called for the public institutions under its control to dismantle chapters of the advocacy group Students for Justice in Palestine (SPJ), citing alleged links to “terrorist groups”.
The decision, the state university system said, was made in consultation with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, another Republican presidential contender.
The Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center, two pro-Israel groups, also issued a joint letter to universities this week, calling for probes into Students for Justice in Palestine.
“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,” the ADL letter said.
It also warned that if universities fail to “check the activities of their SJP chapters, they may be violating their Jewish students’ legal rights to be free of harassment and discrimination on campus”.
ACLU denounces call for probes
On Wednesday, the ACLU specifically rejected the ADL’s call for “sweeping investigations” into student organisations.
The group acknowledged that the war in Gaza has “roiled campuses across the country” and led to a rise in threats and concerns about personal safety.
Many Palestinian rights advocates have complained of intimidation tactics, public shaming and being doxxed, a practice by which their personal information is disseminated publicly, often online.
Some students also fear their career prospects could be threatened if they speak out. For example, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, published a Wall Street Journal op-ed last month titled Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students, referring to student activists who oppose Zionism.
Jewish students have also reported anti-Semitic incidents, including violent online threats at Cornell University, a prestigious Ivy League school. On Wednesday, police arrested 21-year-old Cornell student Patrick Dai over posts that threatened to kill and rape Jewish people.
The ACLU said that while it does not take sides in overseas conflicts, it does “strongly oppose efforts to stifle free speech, free association, and academic freedom here at home”.
“In the name of those principles, we urge you to reject calls to investigate, disband, or penalize student groups on the basis of their exercise of free speech rights,” the letter said.
The ACLU also decried the Florida university system’s decision to deactivate its SPJ chapters.
“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 said.
“We urge you to hold fast to our country’s best traditions and reject baseless calls to investigate or punish student groups for exercising their free speech rights.”