On November 6, 2023, the Brandeis University administration announced that it had made the decision to no longer recognize the school’s chapter of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), rendering the group ineligible for university funding and unable to hold events on campus.
The decision occurred against the backdrop of a surprise Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 that left over 1,000 Israelis and foreign nationals dead and more than 200 abducted, and the subsequent Israeli military bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of mid-November, has reportedly killed more than 11,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions around speech on campus in the United States and across the world. In the weeks before Brandeis University’s termination of SJP, the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center had written to 200 colleges and universities accusing local SJP chapters of “materially supporting a foreign terrorist organization” and urging them to investigate the campus chapters.
In a letter to the campus community, Brandeis University president Ron Liebowitz stated that the university revoked the group’s status because “it openly supports Hamas, which the United States has designated as a Foreign Terrorist Organization.” The letter did not cite specific evidence; a statement by a university spokesperson alleged that the national SJP organization had “called on its chapters to engage in conduct that supports Hamas in its call for the elimination of the only Jewish state in the world and its people.” SJP at Brandeis is an independent organization.
According to the president of the SJP group, the Brandeis University administration never notified them that they were being investigated, nor asked to meet with them prior to the de-recognition decision. A senator for Brandeis University’s student union likewise reported that the university administration did not consult with the union.
Groups including the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), the Middle East Studies Association, and the University of Chicago’s Forum on Free Inquiry and Expression (Chicago Forum) condemned the decision by Brandeis University. A representative from FIRE noted that “None of the chants or slogans cited by President Liebowitz come close to meeting the legal criteria for incitement or harassment,” and the director of the Chicago Forum noted that the ban appeared to undermine free expression on campus and that a more appropriate response would be to discipline students who transgress university rules.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the attempt to limit the right to freedom of expression and freedom of association on campus by revoking the status of a student group without due process and demonstrated evidence of misconduct beyond the expression of disfavored views. University authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with student expression, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly, and an obligation to ensure due process, transparency, and fairness when engaging in disciplinary action. University actions limiting the rights to free expression or association on campus have a chilling effect on academic freedom and university autonomy, and undermine democratic society generally.