88% Targeted Students and Scholars on 74 Campuses

Palestine Legal responded to 258 incidents of suppression of US-based Palestine advocacy in 2016. The incidents included baseless lawsuits, administrative disciplinary actions, outright censorship, and false accusations of terrorism and antisemitism. Eighty-eight percent targeted students and scholars at 74 educational institutions across the country.

Over three years, from January 1, 2014 through December 31, 2016, Palestine Legal has responded to a total of 650 incidents of suppression targeting speech supportive of Palestinian rights, and an additional 200 requests for legal assistance in anticipation of such incidents.

Separately, elected officials introduced 38 legislative measures in 2016 targeting Palestine advocacy, particularly support for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) for Palestinian rights. Seventeen of these measures became law in 2016, in comparison to two measures enacted in 2015.

This data reflects only what is directly reported to Palestine Legal, and therefore is not an exhaustive account of the problem.  

Driven by a network of Israel advocacy organizations intent on defeating the growing movement for Palestinian rights, these heavy-handed tactics and punitive measures intimidate and chill those who wish to express criticism of Israeli policies, and thereby impede honest and unfettered discussion on the question of Palestinian rights.

The following illustrates the most notable trends in suppression of Palestine advocacy in 2016.

Censoring campus criticism of Israel

  • Fordham University administrators forbade students from forming a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter in late December 2016, after delaying the students’ application for club status for over a year. A Fordham dean claimed that the group would be too “polarizing” to permit on campus. Civil rights groups, students, and alumni are challenging this decision.
  • The University of California, Berkeley suspended a student-led course called “Palestine: a Settler Colonial Inquiry” in the middle of the fall 2016 semester, in response to complaints from Israel advocacy organizations. The class was reinstated after an outcry from faculty, students and civil rights organizations who protested the First Amendment and academic freedom violations.
  • At Harvard Law, the Milbank law firm withdrew $1,000,000 in February 2016 from a fund to support student conferences after a student group used allotted funds to pay for pizza for a lunchtime lecture on the “Palestine Exception to Free Speech.”
  • The New York State Senate voted to cut $485 million to the City University of New York (CUNY) in March 2016 after the Zionist Organization of America falsely accused SJP of antisemitism, and called for the group to be banned from all CUNY campuses. All allegations against SJP were found to be unsubstantiated.

False accusations against student protesters consistently rebuked

Israel advocacy organizations leveraged allegations that student protests for Palestinian rights were threatening and antisemitic. Lengthy investigations consistently found such charges to be unsubstantiated.  

  • The City University of New York created an independent task force to investigate allegations that campus activism for Palestinian rights was antisemitic. Led by a former federal judge, the task force conducted a six-month investigation, and concluded that there was a "tendency to blame SJP for any act of antisemitism on any CUNY campus," which it called a "mistake."   
  • San Francisco State University, hired an independent expert on discrimination to investigate allegations that students who protested a speech by the mayor of Jerusalem had threatened Jewish students with violent and antisemitic messages. The investigator found that the protest did not target individuals for their Jewish identity, posed no safety threat, and that the protest was protected speech criticizing the mayor’s policy positions.
  • The University of California Irvine investigated allegations that students who protested outside a film screening that featured Israeli soldiers had terrorized Jewish students. The administration found that while the protest was too loud, it did not target Jewish students, and was peaceful.


  • Lawmakers, prompted by Israel advocacy groups, introduced at least 38 legislative measures in 2016 to condemn or restrict advocacy for Palestinian rights, often by conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, and attacking the First Amendment right to boycott. Seventeen measures became law in 2016. In the first 26 days of 2017, lawmakers have already introduced at least 10 new anti-BDS measures in state legislatures and Congress.
  • These legislative efforts involved: (1) state-sanctioned blacklists; (2) prohibitions on state contracts with entities supportive of BDS; and (3) prohibitions on state investments in companies supportive of BDS.
  • Anti-boycott laws were backed by Republicans and Democrats alike. When an anti-boycott bill failed to pass the New York legislature after public outcry, Governor Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, signed an anti-boycott executive order, denouncing non-violent human rights activists as extremists.
  • Acknowledging the rapid growth of BDS activism on college campuses, Israel advocacy groups are turning to “more favorable turf” for their efforts to suppress criticism of Israel. The leader of one Israel advocacy group boasted, “[w]hile you were doing your campus antics, the grown-ups were in the state legislature passing laws that make your cause improbable.” A politician in Washington state explained his intent to chill speech, “I want to prohibit (BDS) at the state legislator level and say it is illegal and that way I can just shut down these conversations ...”

Other Notable Trends

  • False Accusations of Antisemitism: 149 reported incidents (58%) in 2016 involved accusations of antisemitism based solely on speech critical of Israeli policies, up from 125 (52%) such incidents in 2015.
  • False Accusations of Terrorism: 103 reported incidents (40%) in 2016 involved unsubstantiated accusations of support for terrorism, based solely on speech critical of Israeli policies, up from 84 such incidents (35%) in 2015. For example, the David Horowitz Freedom Center plastered posters on at least a dozen campuses accusing individual students and professors of having “allied themselves with Palestinian terrorists.” The Southern Poverty Law Center, says that David Horowitz, is the “driving force of the anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-Black movements.” Horowitz is a friend of President Donald Trump’s chief strategist Steve Bannon and a long-time ally of Attorney General nominee Jeff Sessions.
  • Lawsuits and legal complaints aimed at harassing supporters of Palestinian rights increased to 13 in 2016, from 7 in 2015.  For example, the Brandeis Center sued the American Studies Association (ASA) on the baseless theory that endorsing BDS is outside the authority of ASA’s corporate charter. The ZOA threatened CUNY with legal complaints based on discredited accusations. Defending against such threats, even when meritless, requires significant resources. Israel advocacy groups have indicated plans to continue using legal strategies to suppress protected speech supporting Palestinian rights.
  • Administrative sanctions that punished students for advocating for Palestinian rights increased to 11 incidents in 2016, up from 3 in 2015. For example, Saint Louis University disciplined a student for “disruptive behavior” and “bias” because he asked whether Israeli ambulances assist Palestinians in need of medical aid during the question and answer portion of an event titled, “Israel: First Responders to World Crisis.”

Incidents by State

Palestine Legal responded to 650 incidents in 26 different states (including the District of Columbia) from January 1, 2014 – December 31, 2016. The five states with the highest number of reported incidents are:

  • California: 186
  • New York: 141
  • Illinois: 61
  • Massachusetts: 33
  • District of Columbia: 23


Palestine Legal expects these suppression trends to intensify in 2017, as the Trump administration intensifies the attack on political dissent, and more resources are invested in thwarting the movement for Palestinian rights. 

Palestine Legal urges universities to protect students’ speech rights and academic freedom on every issue, from Palestine, to immigrant rights and Black Lives Matter, and other pressing social justice concerns. Universities must:

  • Strengthen policies on academic freedom and freedom of speech to nurture robust expression and open inquiry on matters of public concern.
  • Be vigilant in ensuring the even enforcement of speech policies to all issues, regardless of how “controversial” the issue is perceived to be.
  • Listen and respond to concerns from students targeted by cyber-bullying.
  • Clearly distinguish between protected political speech and harassing activity directed at individuals because of their actual or perceived identities. This includes distinguishing clearly between criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism.

Palestine Legal urges elected officials and government agencies to:  

  • Clearly distinguish between criticism of Israeli policies and antisemitism in the crafting and enforcement of civil rights and free speech policies.
  • Be vigilant in protecting cherished American freedoms of speech, association and assembly, including the enshrined right to criticize government policy – both domestic and foreign.
  • Reject efforts to limit, punish, or chill the right to boycott, including the right to support and participate in BDS campaigns for Palestinian rights.

For more information, please see “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the US,” a report by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, released in 2015, which documented the widespread and growing suppression of Palestinian human rights advocacy in the United States.