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How free is student speech? 

Updated: Apr 2

By Vic Valera

On December 29th, 2023, South Africa instituted proceedings against Israel in the International Court of Justice, filing the case on the grounds that Israel violated the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. This followed the killing of over 20,000 Palestinians in 2023 by the IDF, a majority of whom were civilians. The extensive hearings resulted not in the ICJ’s call for a ceasefire, but a declaration that “Israel’s actions in Gaza are plausibly genocidal and has indicated provisional measures on that basis.” These provisions include ensuring aid enters Gaza and that the Israeli government must “take all measures within its power to prevent and punish the direct and public incitement to commit genocide in relation to members of the Palestinian group in the Gaza Strip.”

Despite this ruling, the Palestinian death toll has now surpassed 29,000 people as of February 19th, 2024. President Joe Biden has remained steadfast in his financial support for Israel, sending over $260 billion in aid between 1946 and 2023. Protests demanding an end to the United States funding of Israel’s military have occurred throughout this time. Additional attention is being paid to the student protests at universities, particularly Columbia University. 

Columbia’s suspension of student groups Students for Justice in Palestine & Jewish Voice for Peace on November 10th sparked an outcry. Both pro-Palestine groups, these organizations had allegedly “...repeatedly violated University policies related to holding campus events.” (Statement from the Chair of the Special Committee on Campus Safety). Most recently, Columbia has been limiting the locations and hours of on-campus protests. According to the Columbia Spectator, “Columbia’s new policy allows for demonstrations to take place on South Lawns and at the Sundial between 12 p.m. and 6 p.m.”. The policy update also includes the banning of any sound amplification or noise devices within the designated protest zone.

 Barnard, a college of Columbia University, is also mandating that students remove any decorations on dorm room doors following disciplinary action against students for hanging pro-Palestinian banners outside their windows. Intending to prevent “isolating those who have different views and beliefs.”, the policy also restricts students' expression on campus and takes disciplinary action when this expression occurs.

On Friday, February 2nd, violence broke out between police and protesters at a protest near Columbia University. Amid the pepper spray administered by the NYPD and the physical altercations, a protester had to have an ambulance called for them. That day, 20 people were arrested for nonviolent protest. Eyewitness reports claim that the NYPD instigated the violence, violence that could’ve been avoided had Columbia not made the window for safe, on-campus student protest incredibly limited. When the Israeli military chemical weapon known as “skunk” was deployed on peaceful pro-Palestine protesters and Columbia students, no arrests were made.

The existence of an NYPD branch in Israel and Mayor Eric Adams’ vocal support of Israel has created a dangerous environment for pro-Palestine protestors in New York. The utilization of police against students doesn’t end in New York, with students at Stanford University being detained by police after calling for divestment from genocide in Gaza- staging the protest during the president’s Q&A. Though the charges have now been dropped, two students of Northwestern University were pressed with Class A misdemeanor charges for printing satirical papers criticizing Northwestern’s complicity. 

Over-policing within New York City is not an unknown phenomenon. Countless pro-Palestine demonstrations and marches have ended with police violence- some of which I've seen firsthand. The issue arises when student populations, who have historically been one of the most mobile forces in anti-war movements, are persecuted by universities meant to protect them and administer justice equally. 

Will these powerful institutions protect us? Are they meant to? When we see universities like Columbia and Barnard infringe on their students’  basic liberties, we know they won't protect us. When we see universities take money from military defense organizations and bend to the will of Zionist alumni, we know they don't have the best interests of all students in mind. When the United States government can send billions of dollars in aid to Israel but leave campaign promises like student debt forgiveness unfulfilled while inflation runs rampant, its credibility falls. 

From October to December of last semester, the “Important Information and Reminders” from the Associate Provost for Student Engagement and Development included a note that “the Office of Counseling & Wellness offers confidential support to any students who are affected by the recent events in Israel and Palestine.” A statement sent out on the 23rd of October stated “As the horrific events in the Middle East continue to unfold as a result of the Israel-Hamas War, we acknowledge and mourn the ongoing loss of life. Given the diversity of our community—students, faculty, and staff—in culture, national origin, religion, and political viewpoints, it is essential that we all act in a way that ensures everyone feels welcome and no group feels favored or alienated. At New York Tech we seek to create and maintain a learning environment that is conducive to everyone on campus, where we can all feel safe, respect each other, and have open and respectful dialogue.” This is the extent of NYIT's acknowledgment of the crisis in Palestine- with no mention of Gaza. For a technology-oriented university with graduates going to work for military defense companies (and professors who’ve worked for them), the statements of neutrality seem to hold little awareness of the events that have unfolded. This begs the question: Will NYIT protect or punish its students if and when they decide to dissent?

“In a democracy, dissent is an act of faith.”

― J. William Fulbright (Senator)

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