Statement: Banning SJP from CUNY would be unconstitutional

Credit: Lisa Bettany

Credit: Lisa Bettany

Palestine Legal is concerned by recent calls from 35 NY legislators for the “immediate suspension” of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) from the City University of New York (CUNY). The calls come after a recent letter by the Zionist Organization of America to “investigate and ban” SJP from all CUNY campuses.

“It’s a disgrace that legislators who are sworn to uphold the U.S. Constitution are calling for CUNY to violate students’ First Amendment rights in order to protect Israel from criticism,” said Radhika Sainath, who represents SJP students on several CUNY campuses. “Real instances of anti-Semitism, just like anti-Black and anti-Muslim racism, should be taken very seriously and investigated. But I have yet to see evidence that such incidents are attributable to speech supporting Palestinian rights. Time and again such accusations, when investigated by universities and government bodies, have been dismissed.”

The Supreme Court has long held that “speech on public issues occupies the highest rung of the hierarchy of First Amendment values, and is entitled to special protection.”

Messages such as “Boycott Israel” and “#FreePalestine” are core political speech and thus deserve the highest level of protection afforded by the First Amendment. A public university may not censor or chill protected expression.

SJP’s speech criticizing Israeli settlements, CUNY’s investments in companies that aid and abet Israel’s occupation, or the political ideology of Zionism, is neither anti-Semitic, nor anti-Jewish. The U.S. Department of Education has repeatedly rejected allegations that expression criticizing the state of Israel is harassment or intimidation that targets and creates a hostile educational environment for Jewish students.

This call to ban SJP from CUNY reflects a well-documented pattern of politically-motivated tactics used to suppress Palestinian rights advocacy across the country, and at the City University of New York.  Assembly member Dov Hikind, a staunch Israel advocate with ties to right-wing extremist Meir Kahane, has a long history of advocating for the suppression of free speech rights of CUNY students and faculty. In early 2013, Hikind,  along with other politicians, called on Brooklyn College president Karen Gould to resign after a BDS event. CUNY’s general counsel led a two-month investigation into the discrimination claims, interviewing more than forty individuals. The investigation found no evidence that SJP students discriminated against anyone on account of their religion.