University Report finds widely publicized allegations against student chapter to be unsubstantiated
On Friday, The University of California Irvine (UCI) dismissed allegations against UCI’s student organization Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) following their participation in a campus protest in May outside what was publicized as a public screening of a controversial film. After interviewing witnesses and reviewing extensive video footage, UCI’s Office of Student Conduct released a 58 page report finding that SJP students arrived peacefully at the event but were locked out by its organizers, Anteaters for Israel / Students Supporting Israel.
Members of SJP, joined by students from other student groups, began demonstrating outside the event when they were locked out. The report confirms SJP’s account that their protest was peaceful, and found claims made by attendees of the event that protesters blocked the exits and threatened attendees to be unsubstantiated. The report only found SJP to be in violation of a policy prohibiting “disruption” of university activities because the volume of the protest made it “more likely than not that the participants could not hear the screening of the movie.”
UCI’s findings are consistent with the reports of legal observers who were at the scene. The findings are also consistent with the Orange County District Attorney’s decision not to pursue criminal charges against members or supporters of SJP after the case was referred to them by university police. The sanctions the administration imposed against SJP for the alleged “disruption” are a warning and an educational assignment.
“We are satisfied that the factual findings of the investigation align with what SJP and legal observers have said all along. However, we believe the peaceful protest was an entirely appropriate response to the lockout, and that no sanctions were warranted,” says Julie Hartle, a student representative from the National Lawyers Guild Student Chapter at UC Irvine who advised SJP during the student conduct proceedings.
“SJP members have been unfairly targeted for standing up for Palestinian human rights. Instead of focusing on our studies, we’ve had to spend months responding to inflammatory and unsubstantiated accusations online and in the media,” says Sophia Shalabi, a recent UCI graduate and member of SJP. “These sorts of accusations are serious. Despite being false they have the potential to follow people around for the rest of their lives. I hope this serves as a learning experience so that moving forward, accusations are not made before an investigation has been completed.”
This incident marks the second time there has been an attempt to criminalize student speech at UCI. In 2011, students were prosecuted by the Orange County District Attorney for protesting then-Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren. Students and scholars routinely face widespread suppression of their speech when advocating for Palestinian human rights. In the first half of 2016 alone, civil rights attorneys at Palestine Legal responded to 171 incidents of suppression of Palestine advocacy across the country, a 22 percent increase from the same period in 2015. Incidents have included a variety of punitive measures, such as administrative sanctions, censorship, intrusive investigations and other forms of discriminatory treatment. This suppression extends beyond the university campus. Across the country, legislation aimed at punishing or suppressing boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns for Palestinian freedom have been introduced in a number of states and at the Congressional level. In June, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the first executive order directing a state to create a blacklist of entities deemed to support or promote BDS.
“This incident represents a growing effort to stifle the speech activities of students who advocate for Palestinian freedom and equality," says Dima Khalidi, the director of Palestine Legal, a civil and constitutional rights legal organization. "As we’ve seen in many other instances, false accusations against student protesters here led to a lengthy investigation for an otherwise typical protest on campus. Such vilification by Israel advocacy groups has become commonplace, and has a harmful chilling effect on student speech.”
Click here to view the full report from UCI.
UCI SJP released the above press release on August 23, 2016.