SAR’s Academic Freedom Monitoring Project investigates and reports attacks on higher education with the aim of raising awareness, generating advocacy, and increasing protection for scholars, students, and academic communities. Learn more.

Date of Incident: November 15, 2023

Attack Types: Prosecution

Institution(s):Northwestern University

Region & Country:Americas | United States of America

New or Ongoing:New Incident

In November 2023, Cook County State’s Attorney Office charged two Northwestern University students with “theft of advertising services” for distributing a parody of the Northwestern student newspaper, The Daily Northwestern, that accused the university of being complicit with genocide in Gaza.

The two students distributed the parody newspaper on October 25, a little more than two weeks after 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 April 2024, has reportedly killed more than 33,000 Palestinians. The violence led to heightened tensions on campuses in the United States and other countries.

The parody emulated The Daily Northwestern’s front pages, mimicking its formatting and including the nameplate The Northwestern Daily. The pages were pinned on bulletin boards, placed on desks across campus, and wrapped around copies of The Daily Northwestern and distributed across campus. Northwestern University responded by issuing a statement noting that the parody paper included “images and language about Israel that many in our community found offensive,” and stating that it was “looking into the issue.”

In November, Students Publishing Company (SPC), the parent company of The Daily Northwestern whose board includes 13 volunteer students, faculty, staff members, and alumni, filed a police report, which led to a criminal investigation by university policy and a complaint against two students accused of being responsible for distributing the parody paper. The Cook County State’s Attorney Office charged the two students with an obscure statute, theft of advertising services, which involves “knowingly attach[ing[ or insert[ing] an unauthorized advertisement in a newspaper or periodical, and redistribut[ing] it to the public or [intending] to redistribute it to the public.” The charge is a misdemeanor that carries a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a $2,500 fine. Uniformed police delivered citations notifying the students of the charges, including by stopping one of the students outside of their classroom.

On February 7, 2024, SPC’s board members published a letter in The Daily Northwestern stating they regretted the charges and had hired legal counsel to ensure a non-punitive solution that would result in no permanent repercussions for either student. The State’s Attorney’s Office subsequently dismissed the charges noting that the “criminal justice system should only be utilized when there is no other recourse for accountability” and that “the Northwestern University and campus police are fully equipped to hold the involved individuals accountable, ensuring that such matters are handled in a manner that is both appropriate to the educational context and respectful of students’ rights.”

Scholars a Risk is concerned about the filing of misdemeanor charges against students in retaliation for the nonviolent exercise of the rights to freedom of expression. State authorities have an obligation to refrain from restricting or retaliating against expressive activities so long as they are peaceful and responsible. Even when such charges are ultimately dropped, they undermine academic freedom and democratic society generally.