The importance of freedom of speech and the problem of censorship is an ongoing and timeless discussion. We’re not living in a post-censorship era. The world glared at the recent murders of twelve journalists at the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo. Masses poured into the streets, onto social media and behind podiums, echoing the words “Je Suis Charlie” (I am Charlie). The rallying cry condemns not only the tragic attack on the French journalists, but also the attack’s more-than-symbolic assault on the fundamental freedoms of speech and expression.
Yet as we bleed red, white and blue to denounce the violation of these freedoms — namely the freedom to advocate unpopular ideas — the entire Loyola community willfully ignores how students continue to be censored and silenced on campus. Censorship goes by a new, more furtive, name: civility.
Last September, two Palestinian students alerted other students about the presence of a Taglit-Birthright table in the Damen Student Center. Through Taglit-Birthright-Israel, Jewish students from countries such as the United States can vacation in Israel for free — while more than 7 million Palestinian refugees are barred from ever returning to their occupied homeland. These trips are fundamentally racist, allowing one selective group to foster an imagined connection with a presumed homeland, simultaneously perpetuating, without ever acknowledging, the violent history of that stolen land.
Although those who participated in the Birthright action silently stood in a line adjacent to the table, they were falsely accused of “hurling insults” and being violent. Despite only two board members being present at the event, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) was found guilty for having planned said “demonstration,” put on probation, denied university funding and its board members were forced to endure an inter-group dialogue training. Meanwhile, Hillel, the student organization that set up the Birthright table without the university’s approval, was not penalized or put under the same level of scrutiny as SJP.
For three hours on Jan. 27, we were taught how to engage in dialogue in a “civil” manner because the university holds SJP responsible for all pro-Palestine speech on this campus, ignoring the wide racial, ethnic and religious diversity of those in solidarity with Palestine, while also portraying that speech as “uncivil” and “aggressive.”
One must only look back to July for an example of the intrusion on freedom of expression at our neighboring school, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (U of I). When professor Steven Salaita was offered a tenured faculty position at U of I, he resigned his position as an associate professor of English at Virginia Tech, moved his family across the country and planned to begin the next phase of his professional career.
His position as a tenured professor was short-lived. After tweeting criticism of the Israeli government and its massacre in Gaza this past summer, during which 2,100 Palestinians were killed, Salaita was fired for being “uncivil.”
At the same time, the conversation surrounding Charlie Hebdo, let alone the content of the publication itself, has been incredibly Islamophobic. The hypocrisy, the cognitive dissonance, of praising the “martyrs” of racist speech while stifling legitimate political critique of the Israeli occupation is unconscionable. There is a clear double standard regarding freedom of speech and freedom of expression.
While SJP as an organization did not sponsor or plan the Birthright event, political speech should not be hindered by this university’s protest policy. Even in light of the recent changes to the policy, why should students have to submit to the administration’s magnifying glass in order to express themselves on campus? This hardly seems like an atmosphere that fosters progressive ideas that work against injustice.
The Palestinian narrative is one that has always been suppressed, neglected and censored. Referring to the efforts to stigmatize and delegitimize pro-Palestine speech, Salaita said it best: “Such tactics are increasingly being used to silence faculty and students on campuses across the country for speaking in support of Palestinian human rights.”
The conversation about Palestinian human rights has shifted this year, especially with the inexplicable, horrendous crimes committed by Israel against Palestinian civilians in Gaza. However, the silencing of SJP at Loyola is truly illustrative of the repercussions of challenging the status quo. One can recall that our government also once had the revered Nelson Mandela, who was pro-Palestine, on a terrorist watch list until 2008. Across the U.S. and on this campus, the fight for Palestinian human rights has shone a light on the suppression of freedom of speech; it has turned into a battle for the right to simply advocate for Palestinian self-determination.
Lillian Osborne and Hadeel Barrawi are contributing columnists.