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The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: Censorship, Harassment Intensifies on Campus Amid Gaza War

StoryOctober 27, 2023
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A free speech battle is playing out on college campuses, as students, professors and others advocating for Palestinian rights across the United States are facing racist attacks and retaliation that threaten their safety and livelihoods. These attacks aim to suppress criticism of Israel and U.S. support of its actions in Gaza. This comes as the U.S. Senate has unanimously passed a resolution “condemning Hamas and antisemitic student activities on college campuses.” The resolution references a student at New York University’s law school whose job offer was withdrawn after they sent a newsletter to classmates expressing “unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance against oppression toward liberation and self-determination.” We’re joined by that student, Ryna Workman, who was also suspended from their position as president of the NYU Law Student Bar Association after publicly expressing support for Palestine, and by Dima Khalidi, the founder and director of Palestine Legal, a legal aid organization dedicated to documenting and supporting people who face retaliation for supporting Palestinian rights. “Folks are now afraid to speak up, in fear that they might become the next me,” says Workman about what Khalidi terms “the Palestine exception to free speech.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman.

We look now at how students, professors and others advocating for Palestinian rights across the United States are facing racist attacks and other threats to their free speech, safety and livelihoods.

This week, Florida ordered state universities to ban the group Students for Justice in Palestine, accusing it of supporting a terrorist organization. The group Palestine Legal is documenting and supporting people who were fired or faced other retaliation for sharing social media posts or signing statements in support of human rights for Palestine.

This includes our next guest, Ryna Workman, who was removed from their position as president of the NYU Law School’s Student Bar Association and saw their job offer at the corporate law firm Winston & Strawn withdrawn after they sent a newsletter to classmates expressing, quote, “unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance against oppression toward liberation and self-determination,” unquote, after Hamas’s October 7th attack on Israel and the subsequent number of Palestinians who died in these last weeks.

On Thursday, the Senate unanimously passed a resolution, quote, “condemning Hamas and antisemitic student activities on college campuses,” unquote, which referenced Ryna, though not by name. This comes as doxing trucks target people at Ivy League universities who sign Palestinian solidarity statements, have now appeared at Harvard, at Columbia, University of Pennsylvania with digital billboard screens displaying people’s faces, their names, and above them saying “antisemites.”

Palestine Legal and over 600 other legal groups and leaders issued a letter calling on elected officials and institutional leaders to address the, quote, “hundreds of incidents happening across the country [that] signal a much broader effort to criminalize dissent, justify censorship, and incite anti-Palestinian, anti-Arab, and anti-Muslim harassment,” unquote. The letter notes, “This is not a new phenomenon, but it is escalating at terrifying speed,” unquote.

For more, we’re joined in Chicago by Dima Khalidi, the founder and director of Palestine Legal, and by Ryna Workman, the NYU law student who had their prestigious job offer rescinded.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Ryna, why don’t we start with you? What exactly happened?

RYNA WORKMAN: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

I think that, you know, I sent a message to my fellow law students supporting Palestine and offering context to a narrative that I already saw building that was excluding the 75 years of history that we’ve seen in Palestine, the apartheid, the military occupation. And I wanted to add that I support Palestinians in their movement for liberation. And that is what my message was intended to get across.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

RYNA WORKMAN: You know, after that, we saw this incredibly swift backlash. I lost my job offer. My school immediately put out statements that distanced themselves from me, offered me no specific protections publicly. And, you know, I’ve been receiving hateful and racist and transphobic and queerphobic messages for the past three weeks that have only gotten more vile and more hateful as time has gone on.

AMY GOODMAN: And what about your position both at NYU and your offer of a prestigious law firm employment?

RYNA WORKMAN: Yeah, I think that, you know, the consequences that I’m personally facing are devastating for me. But I’m also really concerned that it’s just promoting this chilling effect that we’re seeing across not only my law school, but across universities and other law schools across the country, because folks are now afraid to speak up, in fear that they might become the next me, that they might lose their offer simply for supporting Palestine and fighting this oppression and trying to end this genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: So, what do you say to the law firm now? And have they reconsidered?

RYNA WORKMAN: The law firm has not reached out to me at all. And right now I really just want to focus on calling for a ceasefire and ending this genocide. And I really just want to say to everyone who cares about human life and cares about stopping this killing, to call for a ceasefire and, you know, end this genocide that’s happening right now to the Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to bring Dima Khalidi into this conversation. How common is what happened to Ryna Workman?

DIMA KHALIDI: It’s become very common. Palestine Legal has been documenting for years what we call a Palestine exception to free speech, so it certainly didn’t start on October 7th. We’ve seen these same kinds of tactics, severe doxing, attempts to get people fired and investigated, to punish boycotts for Palestinian rights and other advocacy through legislation, and an attempt to purge academia of voices that support Palestinian rights.

But since October 7th, when we’ve seen people mobilizing for Palestinian rights, we’ve seen an exponential increase. We’ve had more than 300 requests for legal help — more than we get in a whole year typically. And Ryna is really not alone. And we’re seeing dozens, dozens of people getting fired and facing unemployment consequences around the country for making simple statements in support of Palestinian rights. We’re seeing students get disciplined, as you mentioned, Amy. There is a widespread attack on the student movement for Palestinian rights, which has built an incredible cross-movement — has built cross-movement alliances on campuses for the last decade. And really, people’s livelihoods are being threatened. And people’s lives are also under attack. We saw a 6-year-old Palestinian boy murdered just for being Palestinian. So this is a widespread effort to intimidate, as Ryna said, intimidate people into silence.

But Ryna is also not alone in the sense that there are so many voices who are speaking out, because people are seeing more and more clearly what is happening here. This is about 75-plus years of a settler colonial state that has dispossessed an entire people of their land and of their dignity and of their humanity. And what is happening now is a complete dehumanization of Palestinians that is coming from the mouths of Israeli officials, which, by the way, have been speaking in genocidal terms about Palestinians for 75-plus years. And it’s being echoed by our own elected officials, who are repeating to level Gaza and to wipe Palestinians off of the map. This is a genocide that is unfolding with U.S. support. And more people are seeing that. And that’s what’s critical here. We have to speak up. We have to protect people who are under attack for speaking out, because that is our responsibility as U.S. citizens whose taxpayer money is being used to fuel this incredible attack on Palestinians.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about what’s happening in Florida, Governor DeSantis demanding of the state university system to disband the organization, the Palestinian student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine?

DIMA KHALIDI: Of course, DeSantis is often the front-runner when we’re talking about undermining our constitutional rights. And once again, he has attacked a student group based on their fundamental First Amendment rights to engage in advocacy on this issue. His move is fundamentally contrary to the First Amendment. And it will be challenged. There is no doubt.

This is also an attempt to criminalize what students and others are speaking out about. And there is no basis for this. And frankly, it’s part of DeSantis’s broader agenda and the right wing’s broader agenda to undermine fundamental First Amendment rights by criminalizing protests for racial justice, by criminalizing protests for environmental rights and Indigenous rights, and by purging academia of people and curricula that are trying to teach about the sordid history of racism in this country. So it is part of his effort to whitewash our universities and academia from dissenting voices. And this has to be challenged in order for us to maintain the fundamental constitutional rights upon which this country is based and that are essential for any prospect of maintaining democracy in this country.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, it’s been interesting what’s happened. You’ve got the doxing of students, for example, at Harvard and at Columbia. At Harvard, the more traditional conservative organization, Harvard Hillel, actually also condemned the doxing of students and these billboards that are going around with protesters’ faces with the word “antisemite” above it. And at Columbia, is it true that the pro-Israel and the Palestine groups together condemned the doxing?

DIMA KHALIDI: The doxing is one of the most heinous ways of attacking people. These are students. These are individuals who are, you know, working in various arenas, and they are being severely harassed. Their information is being publicized. They are being barraged, as Ryna has, with death threats and horrible misogynistic, transphobic and racist messages. And their livelihoods are being threatened. So we have seen even pro-Israel groups condemn this, because they see how horrible it is for their own peers to be faced with this kind of harassment. And universities are really failing to protect their students here. We’ve seen a couple of instances where universities are beginning to take measures to prevent this doxing, seeing how severe it is.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Ryna Workman, your final comment? Also, who ousted you as president of NYU’s Law School Bar Association?

RYNA WORKMAN: So, the SBA, the Student Bar Association, originally initiated proceedings against me, but since have all resigned. But currently, due to messaging from Dean McKenzie, I am suspended until further notice from all of my presidential duties. And so, even though I cannot say anything or do anything as SBA president, I still want to say, as a person, that we should all be calling for a ceasefire and an end to this genocide.

AMY GOODMAN: Ryna Workman, I want to thank you for being with us, NYU law student who had a job offer rescinded after speaking out in support of Palestinian rights and calling for a ceasefire, and Dima Khalidi, founder of Palestine Legal. I’m Amy Goodman. Thank you for joining us.

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