In a stunning violation of First Amendment rights to leaflet in a public space, New York Police Department (NYPD) officers ordered two members of New York University Students for Justice in Palestine (NYU SJP) to leave Washington Square Park on Tuesday because they claimed the leafleting was causing attendees of an Israeli Independence Day “rave” anxiety.
The “rave,” a celebration of Israeli Independence Day, was sponsored by several NYU student groups, including Realize Israel, AEPi at NYU, NYU College Republicans, and NYU College Democrats. Washington Square Park is a public park adjacent to NYU.
SJP members Moné Makkawi and Itay Barylka arrived to the park at around 3:45pm, and started distributing flyers to passersby and rave attendees. About ten minutes after they arrived, they were surrounded by pro-Israel ravers who blocked them from walking away while shouting at the students that they “don’t belong here.” One raver declared that he had served in the Israeli army, placed his hands on Makkawi and Barylka, preventing them from leaving, while others screamed at Makkawi, calling her a “whore” in Arabic, and Barylka a “self-hating Jew.”
“We were there to raise awareness for Palestinian rights by handing out literature. But as soon as folks started grabbing us and shouting obscenities, I felt the situation was out of control and unpredictable” said Makkawi, a second year Master's student in Near Eastern Studies. “Everything escalated very quickly, and felt very unsafe, particularly because the ravers had boxed us in. When the cops arrived, it just became worse.”
Within minutes, NYPD officers arrived and ordered Makkawi and Barylka to leave the park, telling them “right now you cannot give out your flyers.” When Makkawi and Barylka asked why they were being removed, an officer stated that the leafleting was causing the pro-Israel ravers “anxiety.” As the NYPD officers escorted SJP members out of the park, a crowd of ravers celebrated, cheering “get them out!”
“When we get repeated death and rape threats, our university administration is silent. When we are physically harassed and intimidated for peacefully handing out flyers in a public park, the NYPD pushes us out of the park instead of protecting our First Amendment right to leaflet,” said Barylka, a first year student majoring in International Relations and Social and Cultural Analysis.
NYU SJP has demanded that the university circulate a public statement to the entire campus community, carry out an investigation into the legitimacy of the earlier threats, meet with representatives from SJP, and declare NYU a sanctuary campus. To date, the students have yet to receive a response.
“The officers’ actions on Tuesday were reprehensible,’ said Rahul Saksena, staff attorney at Palestine Legal. “The police violated these students’ right to leaflet in a public park. This is a basic First Amendment-protected activity. Instead, the officers sided with those who used physical and verbal intimidation to shut down political speech.”
The students are considering legal options.