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Palestine Exception: U.S. Colleges Suppress Free Speech, Academic Freedom for Students & Professors

StoryDecember 27, 2023
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We look at the “Palestine exception to free speech” on U.S. college campuses, where students and faculty face backlash and professional retribution for speaking up in defense of Palestinian rights amid the Israeli war on Gaza. We hear from Safiya O’Brien, a Barnard College student and organizer with the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, and speak with Barnard College professor Premilla Nadasen, who describes an organized campaign “to censor student and faculty speech and curtail academic freedom.” The New York Civil Liberties Union recently sent a letter to the president of Barnard to protest a new policy that requires departments to submit content for their websites for approval by the Office of the Provost.

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

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to end now with a Barnard professor and student, as we continue to look at what some are calling the “Palestine exception” to free speech and academic freedom on college campuses across the United States. A New York Times story this past weekend noted, quote, “a sustained antiwar protest like the one against the Gaza invasion has not been seen for decades,” unquote. But many schools have tried to shut down students and teachers who comment on Gaza or call for a ceasefire.

In one of the latest developments, professors at Syracuse University say upper-level administrators surveilled, harassed and intimidated undergraduates peacefully gathering for a study-in in support of Palestine earlier this month. So they issued a “Statement of Solidarity in Opposition to the Repressive Climate on US Campuses.” That’s what the letter was called, signed by more than 900 educators at this point nationwide, and the list is growing.

In a minute, we’ll be joined by a professor from Barnard College, sister school to Columbia. New York Civil Liberties Union recently sent a letter to the president of Barnard to protest a new policy that requires departments to submit content for their websites for approval by the Office of the Provost. Democracy Now! spoke with Safiya O’Brien, a Barnard College student and student organizer with Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

SAFIYA O’BRIEN: The most prominent discrimination and harassment on campus has been through not only other students and faculty on campus, but the administration’s vilification of Palestinians through these university-wide emails that they’ve been sending. This is not only vilifying us as student groups that are advocating for an end to the violence as it ensues, but even allowing professors and adults that have very prominent positions in the university to speak so harshly against us and call for harm against students of color that are advocating for Palestine, and with impunity. We have documented hundreds of harassment complaints, because the administration hasn’t helped us at all with these harassment cases.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Barnard College student Safiya O’Brien, organizer with the Columbia University chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

For more, we’re joined by Premilla Nadasen, a professor of history at Barnard College, also co-director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women and author of the recent book, Care: The Highest Stage of Capitalism.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Professor Nadasen. We just have a minute. Then we will do a post show interview and post it at democracynow.org. But if you can talk about what’s happening on campus and why you signed this letter?

PREMILLA NADASEN: What we’ve seen, Amy, over the past couple of months is a whole series of strategies that universities have deployed, including Barnard College and Columbia University, to censor student and faculty speech and curtail academic freedom. This includes the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace on campus, the cancellation of events, the policing of content on departmental websites, as you’ve mentioned, the presence of NYPD on campus. And this relates back to what you started with, and that is a Palestine exception.

What Barnard College has been doing is actually writing new policy as a way to then retroactively decide that events are unauthorized or, in fact, do not follow procedure. And I think there are some really critical issues here, and one of the critical issues is how are decisions at the university made. A lot of these have been made unilaterally, without consultation by faculty or students, and is, in fact, a violation of the university’s own conduct guidelines. And clearly, there’s a tremendous amount of influence by trustees, administrators, alumni and donors, who are making decisions about what kinds of speech ought to take place on college campuses and what can and cannot be posted.

AMY GOODMAN: You signed a statement headlined “Solidarity in Opposition to the Repressive Climate on US Campuses.” Professor Nadasen, if you could start off by talking about what’s happening at Barnard and Columbia University around the groups like Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, and then what you’re being told to do as a professor in dealing with this crisis?

PREMILLA NADASEN: Yeah. Thanks for having me, Amy.

So, what we’ve seen at Barnard College — and Barnard is a sister college of Columbia University — is where the college and the university are really creating an infrastructure of rules and regulations in order to censor speech and curtail academic freedom. We’ve seen this in a number of instances — the suspension of two student organizations, Jewish Voice for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, presumably because they arranged an unauthorized walkout and rally, because there was supposedly threatening rhetoric and intimidation. However, when pushed, the administration is not able to identify the specific instances of this intimidating behavior. Threatening letters have been sent by deans to students.

We’ve seen the cancellation of events. I direct the Barnard Center for Research on Women. We had organized an event in sponsorship with Students for Justice in Palestine, which the university canceled the night before the event, claiming that Students for Justice in Palestine is an outside organization, even though it’s a Columbia organization, and Barnard students are members of that. They claim there was now a new five-week prior approval policy for co-sponsored events. And then there was an event that the Columbia Law Students for Palestine organized with Omar Shakir, who’s with Human Rights Watch. And so, all of these events have been canceled on, presumably, procedural grounds. And what the university and the college are doing is they’re using procedure and codes of conduct as a way to cancel events and silence students and faculty.

The other example, which you mentioned in your opening, is the control of faculty websites, departmental websites and center websites. Our Women, Gender and Sexuality Studies Department wrote a statement in solidarity with Palestine that was posted on October 22nd — on October 21st, sorry. It was removed on October 22nd by the Provost’s Office. And just a few weeks later, the college created a new policy saying that any website content on departmental pages must be reviewed and approved by the Provost’s Office prior to posting.

And so, this is really crucial, because I think what it suggests is that decisions are being made unilaterally by the university officials, by college officials, without consultation with faculty and without through proper procedure, which includes going through the University Senate. Trustees, administrators, alumni and donors are the ones who are actually having undue influence in what — in the kinds of decisions that are being made around academic freedom and freedom of expression.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Professor Nadasen, I wanted to —

PREMILLA NADASEN: And, you know, the —

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Yeah, I wanted to ask you, several — about a decade ago, the University of Chicago initiated a whole new movement among administrators at American universities, which they called the “Chicago Principles,” that supposedly, quote, said that, quote, “the University’s overarching commitment to free, robust, and uninhibited debate.” And then they got universities all around the country to sign on to this. Columbia signed on in 2016. How does the university reconcile its commitment to these Chicago Principles while at the same time shutting down unpopular speech, as far as they’re concerned, that has to do with Palestine?

PREMILLA NADASEN: What Barnard College has done is that it has actually rewritten its political activity guidelines. It rewrote it on November 13th. And what the new policy suggests is that specific actions, statements or positions taken by public officials or governmental bodies is off limits to faculty or is not protected by academic freedom. We cannot attempt to influence legislation or the outcome related to actions by the legislator. Previously, political activity was understood in terms of electoral or partisan politics. But clearly what the college is doing is expanding this notion of political activity and suggesting that faculty and students are in fact in violation of its policy.

But the Chicago Principles are extremely important. And what it says is that there, in fact, should be free and open inquiry, debate, discussion around all sorts of political issues, even if those are difficult and perhaps uncomfortable for people. Our faculty voted just a few weeks ago in favor of the Chicago Principles, because what we have seen now is, in fact, the administration using the power it has as a way to suppress any kind of debate and discussion, especially around Palestine.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nadasen, are you concerned about speaking out? And do you need any prior approval? And what kind of discussions are you having among the professors at Columbia and Barnard? And talk about your decision to sign on to this letter, which speaks out against censorship and repression on college campuses, started by these Syracuse University professors, that has now close to a thousand signatures.

PREMILLA NADASEN: Students — faculty and staff at Barnard and Columbia formed a Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine shortly after the suspension of JVP and SJP on campus. So, we believe it’s extremely important for faculty and staff to be able to speak out on this issue, partly as a way to protect students. Students have been bearing the brunt of the intimidation and the threatening tactics on the part of the administration. They are the ones who have been suspended, who have been threatened with suspension individually.

And there are always risks. There are always risks in speaking out. I am on the Canary Mission website, and I have been for a very long time, because this is not a new issue for me. But I do think that there is really too much at stake right now. There’s too much at stake around what is happening in Gaza and in Palestine. There’s too much at stake in terms of what we need to be able to do on college campuses.

This is not the first time this has happened at Barnard. In 2015, the college changed its banner policy. It used to be that students could put banners up announcing events that were happening. In 2015, during Israeli Apartheid Week, students put up a banner. Shortly after that, the college changed its policy, and students are no longer to put — are no longer allowed to put banners up.

And so, I think we have to think about the meaning, really, of a liberal arts education and how we want to be able to create a climate that is for — that is one that allows academic debate, allows discussion, allows people to disagree with ideas, where we can have students challenged and give students a space to voice their opinions and faculty the space to teach very difficult topics.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you: In terms of the impact on the student movement, overall, on student organizations, what has been the response of the organizations, given the fact that this is not government censorship? This is basically censorship imposed by donors, in essence, through their dollar contributions or the withholding of money to these universities.

PREMILLA NADASEN: Right. Students have been leading the way in the struggle. So, after JVP and SJP were suspended on the campus, 80 student organizations came together and formed CU Apartheid Divest as a way to represent the pro-Palestinian issue and to incorporate a lot of the agenda of JVP and SJP. Students on campus are currently calling for a tuition strike in the spring and trying to build support for that. So students are leading the way despite the threatening and intimidating behavior on the part of the college administration.

AMY GOODMAN: And I wanted to ask you about the congressional hearing where Elise Stefanik went after these three female college presidents — right? — the president of MIT, the president of Harvard and the president of University of Pennsylvania, who ultimately resigned. The president of Harvard got support from students, from professors, and she did not resign, Claudine Gay, but is under enormous, withering attack right now. Now they’re saying she’s guilty of plagiarism and has to step down. If you can talk about whether you’re following that, and the effect that that has had at Barnard and Columbia and around the country as college presidents are taken down, the most vulnerable, women and women of color? She was the first Black woman president of Harvard. And, of course, UPenn was President Magill, who is a female president of UPenn.

PREMILLA NADASEN: That’s right, Amy. And, in fact, many of the students who have been targeted on the campus here at Barnard and Columbia are largely students of color, and women of color, as well. So we’re seeing this across the board. It’s hard.

You have to place what’s happening at Barnard and Columbia right now in this larger national context. And the House subcommittee that you’re talking about, the hearings on antisemitism on college campuses, the Biden’s administration issuing of guidelines around antisemitism on campus, I think the core issue here — oh, and I will also add the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights, that is investigating a number of schools around the country. I think part of the problem with this is the creation or the assumption that any criticism of the state of Israel is, in fact, antisemitic, and the ways in which, as you mentioned, donors, trustees and alumni are having undue influence on the ways in which there is space to critique the state of Israel on college campuses.

The AAUP has principles of academic freedom that state very clearly that the purpose of academic freedom is to protect the academe as a space for the production and dissemination of knowledge, that serves the public irrespective of governmental, corporate or institutional interests. And so, what we’re seeing right now is a violation of that, at Barnard, at Columbia, at Harvard, at Brown, and Penn, and a shutting down of debate, particularly around Palestine. And this is precisely why the New York Civil Liberties Union wrote this open letter to the Barnard administration about control of websites.

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Nadasen, I want to end by asking about your own background. You said you have been outspoken on Palestinian issues for quite some time. You said your profile is on the Canary Mission website. We just spoke to the investigative journalist James Bamford about the Canary Mission and what it has been doing around profiling students and professors in the United States. People go to democracynow.org. But why you are interested in this issue? Can you talk about where you were born, and what that means for your analysis of the situation in the Middle East?

PREMILLA NADASEN: I was born in South Africa under apartheid. I lived there as a child and moved to the United States, but went back periodically. So I was deeply impacted by apartheid in South Africa and became active in the anti-apartheid movement in high school, and then in college, and knew about what was happening in Palestine, but don’t think I fully understood.

I did go on a delegation to Palestine for the first time. My first time in the region was in 2011 on a women of color delegation. And, Amy, I will just have to say I was shocked by what I saw. And I was shocked mostly with the parallels I saw to apartheid South Africa — the gates, the control of roads, the control of movement, the checkpoints, the use of military force, threatening military force, soldiers with guns. The areas we went to were essentially a militarized state. And even though I had spoken out about Palestine prior to that, I think traveling there and seeing for myself what is happening in Palestine had a real impact on how I could understand and see the issue there. And so I made a commitment at that point to continue to speak out, and to speak out whenever I could, because I think it’s unconscionable. I think what has been happening for decades in Palestine is unconscionable.

And I think what we’re really seeing now is a collective punishment and mass starvation in Gaza and unprecedented attacks in the West Bank. And it’s something that’s being supported by U.S. dollars. So I think it’s very important that we, as Americans who are paying tax dollars that are going to support the Israeli state, speak out about the things that we think are morally just, morally right, and to try to have — and to vote — and to vote as a way to make our voices heard.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Premilla Nadasen, we want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of history at Barnard College, co-director of the Barnard Center for Research on Women, one of close to 1,000 educators who have signed a statement, the headline, “Solidary in Opposition to the Repressive Climate on US Campuses.” The list is growing.

The original content of this program is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Please attribute legal copies of this work to democracynow.org. Some of the work(s) that this program incorporates, however, may be separately licensed. For further information or additional permissions, contact us.

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