Last week, the Northeastern University administration took the unprecedented step of suspending its chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). With a robust membership that makes SJP one of the more active student groups on campus, we are deeply saddened and upset that our student organization has the dubious distinction of being the only student org ever banned from campus. We contest every assertion the university makes in its Suspension Notice and feel that its existence represents another episode of disparate treatment SJP receives—on account of the perceived controversy of our point of view.
On May 3, 2013, after being found responsible for violating the handbook’s demonstration policy—a charge which we vigorously disputed in both our hearing, and subsequent appeal—we were advised of our penalties and what was required of SJP in order to return to good standing with the University. As a part of our sanctions, we were required to submit a civility statement. Following May 3, 2013 we understood that we needed to create this statement in coordination with the Political Action Council. In the time between when the sanctions were issued and December 31, 2013 when we submitted the civility statement the Political Action Council did not convene a single time. Moreover, the attendance record from the Political Action Council meeting of February 27th 2014—the only meeting of the council held since our sanction—will clearly reflect that two SJP members were in attendance. [It is worth pointing out—though commentary would be superfluous—that no representatives from the student group Huskies for Israel attended this mandatory meeting, and their standing as a group for not meeting this responsibility has not been affected.] Our attendance at this meeting, along with our having submitted our civility statement and having complied with the terms of our probation, we began the Spring 2014 semester in good standing.
In the SJP suspension notice, the University charges us with failure to comply with their requirement of “significant revisions” to the civility statement that we submitted. Implicit in this charge is that members of Northeastern SJP had, previous to the February 28 deadline, met with and discussed the content of our civility statement with Robert Jose—a fact which undermines the suspension notice’s charge that we failed to “reach out” to Mr. Jose. Furthermore, if given an opportunity, a hearing, to formally respond to this charge, members of SJP could indeed prove that we made several efforts to connect with Mr. Jose.
The suspension notice alleges that SJP was responsible for distributing “mock eviction notices” in student dormitories on February 23, 2014, citing “Twitter and statements made to NUPD officers”. First of all, the distribution of “mock eviction notices” was not an SJP sponsored action but rather an act of political speech conceived of and organized by SJP leaders. This is a semantic matter not worth quibbling over. These leaflets were meant to both raise awareness about the Israeli practice 0f Home-Demolition. As an act of political speech, and one that did not require university resources or space, there was no need for SJP to organizationally "sponsor" anything.) Secondly, in the two weeks between when this action occurred and when our suspension was handed down, SJP was never notified or formally charged with involvement in this action which allegedly violated provisions in the Student Organization Resource Guide. Having been deprived of the opportunity for a hearing in which we could explain that though some individual SJP members may have organized and participated in this action, the majority of participants were not in fact SJP members. Moreover, Mr. Jose’s own statement contradicts the basis for the sanctions the university imposes. To quote from Mr. Jose’s email to all residents of university housing who received our leaflets: “The flyers were distributed by individuals who did not receive permission from the university…” Northeastern is collectively punishing SJP as an organization for actions which even its administrator considers attributable individual students. Therefore, this action should not fall under the purview of the Student Organization Resource Guide (and no violations of its policies took place) and rather ought to be seen as the protected speech of individual students.
Accordingly, the suggestion that any tweets attributed to Northeastern SJP as an organization “confirmed” our responsibility for the alleged rule violation is false and represents yet another charge we would have welcomed the opportunity to formally contest, in only we were given a hearing in which to do so.
The same can be said of evidence of our organizational involvement provided by the university police, though the problems with NUPD involvement go far beyond mere erroneous inferences from Twitter. On February 25, 2014 NUPD began a campaign of systematic interrogation of SJP members. By calling individual students on their private cell phones and showing up unannounced at student’s homes the University intimidated and coerced students they believed to be involved in this “mock eviction notice action” into speaking with them. It is important for us to note that the first and only students interrogated in connection with this investigation are members of SJP with Muslim sounding names. Following these two interrogations, every other student contacted by police declined to answer questions about this event without legal counsel present. Despite being informed by SJP members of our wishes to speak with our legal counsel, the police continued harassing students in SJP.
SJP would also like to communicate our observation that the Handbook guidelines on flyer distribution in dormitories are flouted, if not flatly ignored, by other student groups, as well as individuals on a regular basis. We assert that our suspension is due to the content of the flyers—the mock evictions—and not the responsible individuals’ conduct—the alleged violation of university guidelines on flyer distribution. If the University was interested in applying equally its flyer policy, instead of holding us to a double standard, the university would sanction its athletic team boosters, organizers of Music and Drama events, and fraternities, not mention the myriad local businesses who leave unauthorized menus and flyers at dorms all the time, but obviously are never by contacted in regard to doing so by the Northeastern Police—unless of course it’s to place an order. It is no coincidence, we suggest, that the University singles-out speech consistent with SJP’s views because important University benefactors consider such content objectionable like Robert Shillman and the Rudermans.
SJP again points out that we have not been formally charged with any policy violations in connection with this police investigation. Furthermore, our group’s experience with this inappropriate Northeastern police investigation occurred in the days just before the deadline imposed by Robert Jose to revise our civility statement.
Even though as a group we had significant moral qualms with the revisions Mr. Jose required, not mentioning our strident objections over being compelled to draft a civility statement in the first place, the police investigation and individual member’s fears of legal and academic consequences diverted our attention from addressing these revisions appropriately and within the time frame specified. As a statement that would present an official position of our organization, we needed adequate time to both present Mr. Jose’s required revisions and discuss them as an organization. In the week following the deadline, we attempted to make contact with Mr. Jose to address these concerns, but he was unavailable.
Elsewhere in the suspension notice SJP is ludicrously and falsely accused of “Vandalism of university property by placing stickers on various structures in April 2012.” In the 20 months since this was alleged to have occurred this is the first time that SJP has been accused of engaging in such behavior. Thus, we take this opportunity to state categorically both that SJP as an organization had nothing to do with this alleged vandalism, and the suggestion of otherwise reflects the deeply problematic habit the administration regularly demonstrates of blaming SJP as an organization for any and all unpopular pro-Palestine speech engaged in by members of the Northeastern community. SJP cannot be blamed for any and all mention of Palestine any more than the Catholic Student association can be held responsible for any mention of the Holy Trinity on campus. This baseless accusation reflects the higher level of scrutiny the university applies to SJP than it does to any other student group.
In the suspension notice, following the paragraph in which the absurd charges of vandalism are levied, SJP is charged with “Failure to comply with event planning and contract policies in preparation of an event with a guest speaker in April 2013. The organization did not follow procedure and did not formally schedule the event. Despite being instructed not to move forward with the event as a result, the organization did host the event at another campus location.” It is here that the suspension notice goes from outrageous to Kafkaesque. To illustrate, allow us to quote from our sanction letter of May 3, 2013, the letter as cited above:
“Charge: Failure to comply with cancellation of event as requested
Finding: NOT RESPONSIBLE”
SJP can think of no reason why the University has chosen to bring up again a charge with which we were already found not responsible. However, if the university wishes to revisit its disgraceful cancellation of a lecture by Dr. Salman Abu Sitta, a septuagenarian university professor, who rarely visits Boston, SJP welcomes the opportunity. The preventing Abu Sitta from speaking at Northeastern is completely incompatible with the university’s educational mission. The same can be said of Northeastern’s banning SJP from holding events on campus. This sanction prevents Northeastern students from hearing Palestinian perspectives and thus denies them the opportunity to consider their viewpoints.
Plus, it is significant that this charge is the only one for which the university fails to provide the specific date. The event in question, which again, the University determined no policy violation took place occurred on April 9, 2013—one day following the event for which SJP is accused of disrupting in the suspension notice. In the hearing we were given following allegations of rule-breaking by SJP at the April 8th event, Steph Pierce, the administrator who conducted our hearing, stated that the cancellation of our April 9th event was a “direct result” of our actions the night before. SJP finds it suspicious that this fact is omitted from the suspension notice along with precise date; these omissions obfuscate the sequence of events in order to portray SJP in the worst possible light.
Finally, SJP points out that the suspension notice contains only charges either for which we have never been formally charged or that we have previously been found not responsible for or given sanction which have since expired. That we are being suspended for rule violations, for which we have never been given the proper opportunity to respond, represents a fatal flaw in the process that has led to our suspension. The banning of SJP represents a draconian repression of our speech rights and implicates the University’s commitment to academic freedom.
Northeastern Responds March 12, 2014--Here is the statement that our supporters received today when they contacted the Northeastern administration:
I am responding to your recent communication about Students for Justice in Palestine at Northeastern University. The suspension of SJP was handed down only after a careful and thorough review of the facts. Despite repeated efforts by university officials to work with the leadership of SJP, the organization has repeatedly shown a disregard for university policies over an extended period of time. Contrary to assertions from some parties, SJP leaders have not been banned permanently from participation, and the organization has had many opportunities to discuss its conduct with university officials. Further, reports that expulsion procedures have been initiated against students affiliated with SJP are false. The issue here is not one of free speech or the exchange of disparate ideas. Instead, it is about holding every member of our community to the same standards, and addressing SJP’S non-compliance with longstanding policies to which all student organizations at Northeastern are required to adhere. I hope this reply is helpful and sheds light on the relevant facts. Sincerely, Michael Armini Senior Vice President External Affairs Northeastern University