Northeastern University: Student Group Suspended for Distributing "Mock Eviction Notices"
On March 7, 2014, Northeastern University suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter after SJP distributed mock eviction notices raising awareness of Israel’s policies of demolishing Palestinian homes.
Campus police interrogated two SJP students in their homes, approached two students in class and called four other students on their phones. The two students who were interrogated were charged with violating dorm policies.
Palestine Legal, along with CCR, the NLG and the ACLU of Massachusetts called on Northeastern to lift SJP’s suspension, arguing that the group’s suspension constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of Massachusetts law. The students mobilized a community campaign to protest Northeastern’s decision, organizing mass demonstrations and call-in campaigns that received media attention. On April 23, 2014, SJP announced that the administration had reinstated SJP.
Northeastern’s history of discriminatory treatment
A year before, in April 2013, SJP was punished with probation and required to write a “civility statement” after staging a walkout at a campus event featuring an IDF soldier. Campus officials had warned students by email before the event not to hold signs or engage in "vocal disruption." The students instead taped the names of children killed by the IDF to their shirts and staged a mostly silent walkout. The university charged SJP with failing to comply with school officials’ directions and violating the demonstration policy because they did not register their demonstration at least one week in advance. They were found responsible for the second charge.
Other student groups had previously staged similarly unregistered demonstrations for which they were neither charged, nor punished, most prominently Zionist students’ protest of a lecture by Norman Finkelstein, which involved repeated vocal disruptions of the speaker.
The suspension of 2014 and the probation of 2013 occurred in the context of significant external pressure on the university to restrict SJP’s activity. In July 2013, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) complained to Northeastern in July 2013 of a hostile, anti-Semitic environment, threatened a Title VI complaint, cc’ing Robert Shillman, a major university donor affiliated with ZOA. A right-wing group, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, released a documentary film targeting SJP’s faculty advisor, two other professors, and SJP as a whole. The films included footage secretly recorded at SJP events and the professors’ classes. Professors and SJP students subsequently reported receiving death threats.
Students reported a pattern of discriminatory treatment, which likely occurred in response to this external pressure. For example, in the spring of 2013, the administration notified SJP that its mock checkpoint event was cancelled the day before it was to take place, supposedly because SJP had not followed proper procedures. Students complained that campus police were present at all SJP events, against SJP’s express wishes. Finally, students reported that the administration revoked SJP’s status as a student group for failure to properly sign a form, but reinstated it when the students quickly responded. Palestine Legal, through CCR Cooperating Counsel, complained to Northeastern that these bureaucratic obstacles created a pattern of apparent discriminatory treatment.