A predictable pattern of events played out at Florida Atlantic University this spring: an Israeli speaker gave a presentation on campus, and pro-Palestinian students protested. But the way they protested -- by interrupting his talk -- has renewed a debate over free speech.
The protest occurred during a presentation on April 19 by Israeli Col. Bentzi Gruber titled “Ethics in the Field: An Inside Look at the Israel Defense Forces,” when five members of the FAU Students for Justice in Palestine unfurled a banner that read "WAR CRIMINAL" and accused Israeli troops of committing war crimes. The students were escorted out, then continued their protest outside the venue as the event proceeded, according to a police report.
The office of student conduct quickly launched an investigation into the protest. The process concluded this month when the students signed an agreement that would keep the protest from becoming a permanent mark on their records. In return, the students accepted sanctions ranging from probation until graduation and a ban on holding leadership positions to attending diversity training programs and community service. The FAU's code of conduct stipulates that "students are expected to govern their behavior at all University-sponsored events."
Many campuses regularly see dueling protests or events related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, with picketing, rallies and so forth designed to advance one idea or another, or to question the ideas of a speaker. But in a few cases in recent years, those protests have involved interrupting speakers, which many view differently. For example, after a group of Muslim students at the University of California at Irvine in 2010 heckled the Israeli ambassador to the United States, 10 of the "Irvine 11," as they were branded, were found guilty of misdemeanors for conspiring to disrupt and disrupting a public speech. The case is still under appeal.
Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine also staged a similar protest in April. Since private universities such as Northeastern are not bound by the First Amendment, the student group was placed on probation, and risks indefinite suspension for future protests.
To the universities, these responses are aligned with the expectations laid out in their codes of conduct. To the students, the sanctions represent an attack on their First Amendment rights.
“It’s extremely chilling,” said Liz Jackson, a lawyer at the Center for Constitutional Rights. Jackson is a member of the legal team supporting the five students, and provides legal services to pro-Palestinian students across the country. “From our perspective, the university’s treatment of the students violates the First Amendment. They never should have been investigated or charged."
In a statement, FAU spokeswoman Lisa Metcalf said the university could not comment on cases relating to a specific student. "However, reports that any students have been disciplined for lawfully exercising their rights to free speech and public demonstration are incorrect and misleading," Metcalf said.
According to Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida, both the students and the university are at fault in the FAU case. He said the university should not have overreacted with its sanctions, and the students could have protested the presentation without interrupting the speaker.
“The idea is that we do not allow under the First Amendment a heckler’s reaction to a speech to silence the speech,” Calvert said, highlighting the debate over what is commonly known as the heckler’s veto. “The remedy for speech we do not like is to add more speech to the market place. That does not mean interrupting.”
Jackson dismissed the idea that the protest -- which she said lasted for two minutes -- qualifies as heckling. She said the university reaction runs counter to "the most basic aspects of higher education," namely that students should be exposed to conflicting ideas and opinions.
“This form of protest is as American as apple pie,” Jackson said. “It’s enshrined in our Constitution.”
The legal team is still considering challenging the university in court, even though the university's investigation has already ended.
“The students signed the agreements because they felt they had no choice,” Jackson said. “Their academic future is in the balance. I understand that.”
The students are scheduled to attend a diversity training program next month. Although administered by the university, the program builds on the “A Campus of Difference” curriculum created by the Anti-Defamation League.
Nadine Aly, one of five students, said she feels being forced to take a course created by a pro-Israel organization “demeans and delegitimizes” her opinions.
“I think it’s quite offensive that the university feels the need to place us in such a program for standing up to injustice,” Aly said. “All of us come from different backgrounds. I don’t believe that any of us need some kind of diversity training course. It’s ridiculous.”
A rising senior, Aly said the sanctions have not deterred the Students for Justice in Palestine from organizing in the coming academic year.
“We plan on hosting guest speakers, and we’re going to have more events -- make sure our presence is known,” Aly said. “Stifling free speech is not something we’re going to stay quiet about.”