Palestine Legal wrote San José State University (SJSU) last month informing the college that a program director’s demand that an event supporting Palestinian human rights be “balanced” with anti-Palestinian programming – under threat of federal investigation – violated academic freedom.
On September 25, 2018, the Department of Justice Studies hosted an event about suppression of speech critical of Israeli policy, aptly named We Will Not Be Silenced: The Academic Repression of Israel’s Critics. A professor and program director emailed one of the faculty organizers of the event, complained that it only presented “one viewpoint,” and implied that SJSU could be investigated by Trump’s Department of Education (DOE) for “anti-Zionist activities.” The email linked to a New York Times article about the reopening of a seven-year-old complaint against Rutgers University, which had previously been dismissed in 2014.
In reopening the Rutgers case, Trump’s head of the DOE Office for Civil Rights, Kenneth Marcus, adopted a controversial re-definition of antisemitism that classifies virtually all criticism of Israel as antisemitic. For example, Marcus’ re-definition makes it a civil rights violation, and grounds for a federal investigation, to call the Israeli state “racist.” This is unconstitutional and contributes to a culture of intimidation on U.S. campuses.
Palestine Legal wrote to SJSU:
“It is the constitutional right of students and faculty to be able to support Palestinian human rights without being smeared, censored or investigated by the federal government. This includes the right of faculty members to organize a scholarly panel discussing the intimidation of academics who support Palestinian human rights.”
The letter notes that a threat of federal investigation carries particular weight when viewed in the context of ongoing efforts to suppress the speech and academic freedom of students and faculty who support Palestinian rights.
True to its name, the We Will Not Be Silenced event went forward as planned.
“It’s evident from this attempt to scare departments into censoring criticism of Israel’s policies that Marcus’ re-definition of anti-Semitism will have far-reaching consequences,” said Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Liz Jackson.