On November 14, 2023, George Washington University (GWU) suspended the local Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) group because of statements that the group had projected on the university’s library approximately three weeks earlier.
The suspension decision occurred against the backdrop of a Hamas attack on Israel on October 7, during which over 1,200 Israelis and foreign nationals were killed and more than 200 abducted, and the Israeli military’s subsequent bombardment of the Gaza Strip which, as of early December, has reportedly killed more than 15,000 Palestinians. The violence has led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries.
On the evening of October 24, the local SJP chapter at GWU projected a series of slogans on the outer wall of the Estelle and Melvin Gelman Library. The projected slogans included “Divest from Zionist genocide now,” “Glory to our martyrs,” “Free Palestine from the river to the sea,” “GW is complicit in genocide in Gaza,” and “2,000 Palestinian children were murdered by ‘Israel’ in the last two weeks.” The meaning of the phrase “Free Palestine from the river to the sea” in particular has been the subject of controversy: while some have argued that it’s an aspirational call for freedom and access to the land for all Palestinians, others interpret it as a call for ethnically cleansing Jews from the land and destroying the state of Israel.
According to a representative from SJP, a GWU campus police officer approached the group and told them that their demonstration was compliant with GW policy and that they could continue their projections. However, the officer later returned, along with the Assistant Dean of Student Life Brian Joyce, and informed the students that the Dean of Students had ordered them to stop the projections. The students reportedly engaged in a tense 15-minute conversation with the officer and Joyce before agreeing to take down the projections.
The following day, on October 25, GWU President Ellen M. Granberg issued a statement denouncing the projections and pointing to the “fear and anxiety” that they had caused for Jewish and other members of the GWU community. Granberg’s statement reportedly came following pressure from GWU alumni and members of Congress.
On November 14, three weeks after the initial incident, GWU announced that it had decided to suspend SJP following an investigation into the October 24 protest that had concluded that SJP had “violated university policies,” including the guidelines for use of the library.
On November 20, the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) wrote to GWU asking for clarification about which policies SJP had violated. In response, GWU’s administration reiterated, “After an investigation, the university determined that SJP’s actions violated the university’s Code of Student Conduct for not following the Gelman Building Use Guidelines and for failing to comply with reasonable directions of university officials, as SJP initially refused to comply with directives to end the projections. No charges were made based on the content of the projections.”
SJP’s suspension will last for at least 90 days until February 12, 2023, leaving the group unable to sponsor activities, organize events, or use university facilities. GWU also announced that SJP will be prohibited from posting communications on campus through May 20.
Scholars at Risk is concerned about the suspension of a student group in apparent retaliation for the peaceful exercise of the rights to freedom of expression. University authorities have a responsibility not to interfere with expressive activity on campus, so long as it is undertaken peacefully and responsibly. Where alleged violations of university policy do occur, authorities have an obligation to ensure due process, transparency, fairness, and proportionality when engaging in disciplinary action, and should avoid punishments that effectively restrict future expressive activity. 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.