Pro-Divestment Speech Suppressed at SDSU

Credit: Light Brigading 

Credit: Light Brigading 

Despite Attempts to Suppress Viewpoint, Majority of Students at San Diego State University Vote in Favor of Divestment from Israel

In a campus-wide ballot referendum, students at San Diego State University (SDSU) voted in April 2015 on a referendum proposal that asked whether or not they support divestment of university funds from companies complicit in the human rights abuses of Palestinians. Fifty-three percent voted in favor of divesting, although this fell short of reaching the supermajority required for the referendum to pass. The student body expressed their support for divestment despite decisions by the student Elections Committee that discriminated against their viewpoint.

The Associated Students ballot asked students whether they support the divestment initiative – yes or no – and then included an opposition statement persuading voters to vote “no.” The student Elections Committee excluded from the ballot an accompanying “yes” statement, apparently as a punishment for minor election rule violations by divestment proponents. Divestment supporters were permitted to present a short rebuttal to the “no” statement but not permitted to present a statement in favor of divestment in their own terms.

This sanction undermined the democratic process and deprived students of a fair opportunity to consider the arguments for and against the referendum.  It is untenable in a purported democratic system for election authorities to prejudice the outcome of an election in this way. The decision to exclude the “yes” statement appeared to be a disproportionate sanction that discriminated against divestment proponents’ viewpoint.

The sanction was imposed based on complaints made to the Elections Committee by students opposed to the referendum who alleged that divestment proponents posted too many flyers, misused the university logo, and emailed professors about the referendum in violation of the Elections Code. Pro-Israel students brought numerous other complaints attempting to block the referendum and brand it as anti-Semitic. SDSU Divest Coalition appealed the decision to exclude the “yes-statement” but their appeal was denied.

This incident of suppression unfortunately reflects a national pattern of efforts to thwart student democratic procedures, fueled by individuals and groups interested in silencing debate on Israel/Palestine. Similar attempts to invalidate student divestment votes or prevent students from voting at all have recently occurred at University of California DavisNortheastern University in Boston, Toledo University in Ohio, the University of South Florida, and elsewhere.

A public university like San Diego State must grant student organizations equal access—on a viewpoint-neutral basis—to school resources. As the United States Supreme Court has stated, “For the University, by regulation, to cast disapproval on particular viewpoints of its students risks the suppression of free speech and creative inquiry in one of the vital centers for the Nation’s intellectual life, its college and university campuses.” (Rosenberger v. Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia, 515 U.S. 819, 836 (1995)). Censoring the political speech of SDSU Divest Coalition in response to complaints by students who may find their position uncomfortable or objectionable is precisely the kind of viewpoint discrimination the Supreme Court has found to be unconstitutional in decades of rulings.

SDSU Divest Coalition was undaunted by the apparent discriminatory treatment and stayed focused on their work educating students about the issue. In a statement on their Facebook page, the SDSU Divest Coalition wrote, “Although we did not meet the supermajority requirement, the students of SDSU have made their voices heard and we will not rest until we divest.”