December 3, 2018 – Attacks on student free speech must end, says a coalition of national civil rights organizations in a letter to Kenneth L. Marcus, Trump’s Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights at the U.S. Department of Education (DOE).
The letter responds to Marcus’s move in August 2018 to redefine antisemitism so that student speech supporting Palestinian rights is classified as antisemitic and is grounds for a federal investigation.
Prior to his appointment, Marcus was a leading anti-Palestinian activist who openly urged pro-Israel groups to file complaints with the DOE to chill speech critical of Israel on college campuses.
The coalition letter warns Marcus against appointing himself as a government censor. It explains:
“[Your redefinition of antisemitism] will violate the First Amendment by establishing a federal requirement for universities to abrogate their educational missions and violate campus free speech principles…For example … Are universities required to punish students and faculty who call the Israeli state, or the U.S. or any other government, ‘racist’?”
The absurdity of Marcus' redefinition is illustrated by the latest complaints filed with his office. Under the Marcus definition, Israel advocates have already:
Filed a complaint with OCR targeting the National Students for Justice in Palestine Conference in November 2018. The event convened students from diverse backgrounds to discuss achieving equality for Palestinians. The Zachor Legal Institute filed the complaint against UCLA within hours after the conference commenced, claiming that discussion of Palestinian rights is an attack on Jewish students.
Filed a complaint with OCR targeting a vigil organized by Jewish students at UC Berkeley in November 2018 to mourn the deaths of Palestinian children killed in Gaza and Jews killed in the Pittsburgh massacre. The complaint was filed against UC Berkeley by attorneys Neal Sher and Joel Siegal, both on the legal advisory board of the Brandeis Center, the organization Marcus previously founded and directed. The attorneys alleged that the vigil was to portray “Israel as a barbarian and racist nation,” falling under Marcus’s redefinition, and said the students who organized the vigil should be expelled.
Threatened a September 2018 event at San Jose State University called We Will Not Be Silenced, which planned to discuss intimidation against Israel’s critics. One professor warned another of a federal investigation under the Marcus policy.
Palestine Legal attorney Liz Jackson explained, “With white supremacy becoming even more deadly, we need the federal government to focus its resources on protecting vulnerable students. We don’t need the federal government to investigate human rights activists.”
The letter is signed by the Arab American Anti-Discrimination Committee, Asian Americans Advancing Justice- Asian Law Caucus, Center for Constitutional Rights, Council on American-Islamic Relations, Defending Rights and Dissent, Know Your IX, a project of Advocates for Youth, Muslim Justice League, National Lawyers Guild, Palestine Legal, Partnership for Civil Justice, and Project South.
The full letter is available here.