The freedom of expression is laid out in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution. While this freedom seems to be self explanatory, it is often more convoluted and complex than anyone could ever imagine. However, the biggest problem with the freedom of expression is that many people take it out of context. Many forget that the First Amendment, as well as the rest of the United States Constitution, applies to the government and not to private entities. The private sector includes everything from small businesses to large private universities.
In April, thirty-five members of Northeastern University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the school’s anti-Israel group, held a protest against an event organized by Huskies for Israel, the school’s pro-Israel group. Huskies for Israel had Israeli soldiers come to the university’s campus to give a presentation. SJP had been warned by the school keep to “respect and decorum”; however, they never followed the school’s protest policy and failed to obtain a permit at least seven days prior to the protest. This incident stands in contrast to an event in 2010, when Huskies for Israel protested SJP’s bringing Norman Finkelstein to campus, having obtained a permit in accordance to school policy.
Boston Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham picked up the story and ran with it, but she ran in the wrong direction. Abraham’s article, entitled “Stifling campus voices,” does not put the blame on the students who broke the rules, but rather the school that makes them. In her article Abraham states, “if the pro-Palestinian group is really being sanctioned purely for failing to follow procedural rules, it’s time to take another look at those rules. No signs or shouting at demonstrations? Those things are essential to protest, time-honored democratic traditions. A requirement that students get a permit a week ahead is especially onerous.”
There are many problems with her statement. First of all, she uses the term “Pro-Palestinian” which, much like the First Amendment, seems self-explanatory. The term is misleading at best. There are many Zionists who can also describe themselves as Pro-Palestinian. The term should simply imply that those who chose to identify with the term are supportive of Palestinians and believe that Palestinians have human rights. This term has now been taken to describe people who believe that Israel does not have a right to exist. That is an anti-Zionist and anti-Israel belief, not a pro-Palestinian belief. On this level, Abraham is inaccurate at her best.
Another problem is that Abraham criticizes the school’s ruling on the situation, later saying that, “Balancing the right to protest against the need for decorum, Northeastern tilted too hard to the latter.” While Abraham has the right to her opinion, so does the school. If they feel that decorum is more important than signs and shouting on their campus, that’s their business and if any student has a problem with that, they are free to transfer schools. Northeastern University is a private school, and therefore has the right to make and enforce any rules on their own property.
The freedom of expression is a sacred right, one that all Americans hold dear. However, the clause was written in order to allow citizens to speak against the government and not against each other. When Northeastern University decided to punish Students for Justice in Palestine for violating the school’s policy, they were in their rights. SJP decided to deliberately violate the university’s rule and therefore risked the consequences. While Abraham may believe that the university was in the wrong, it is interesting that she puts all blame on the school, and not the students who are in the wrong.
Contributed by CAMERA Intern Rachel Wolf