Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
Freedom of speech is unrestrainable. Speech can be malicious, ignorant, or spiteful, but a society without the freedom of speech or expression marks the slow decline of that society into a bleak, illiberal future.
But how do we define “freedom of speech?” Although the term is incredibly vague and has yet to be fully defined, we recognize that, according to the First Amendment, “Congress shall make no law…abridging freedom of speech.”
Speaking from a legal standpoint, the freedom of speech includes the freedom to use certain offensive words and phrases to convey political messages under Cohen v. California, or the freedom to engage in symbolic speech, such as flag-burning, or participating in a boycott, under Texas v. Johnson and United States v. Eichman, respectively.  Of course, there are notable exceptions to this freedom. Specifically, we are unable to incite actions that would harm others, such as shouting “fire” in a crowded theater under Schenck v. United States. 
But does there lie a greater exception to the principle? Legal institutions cannot arbitrarily decide which expressions or methods of speech are accepted and which are prevented. But what if we as a nation stand witness to the greatest instance of systemic legalized censorship of one of the most contentious topics of our era? It is a topic so controversial that the author of this article chose to remain anonymous. It is a topic so divisive that any person who mentions it on a governmental stage risks committing political suicide. It is a topic so galvanizing that professors have been fired for mentioning it and so caustic that students have been threatened for supporting it.  
The case in question: Palestine.
The newest and greatest addition to the “Freedom of Speech Exception” is Palestine, a word and idea support of which it is no longer an exception to censor, but rather the norm.
Why this overt contradiction of freedom of expression? It is done simply out of the fear of change that the oppressor may lose its grip on its victim. Fearful of a shift in American public opinion on Palestine, Israel has established and continues to fund a well-connected network of advocacy organizations, public relations firms, think tanks, and political action committees within our intellectual debates and government institutions.  This network strives to ensure that no action of criticism about Israeli government policies goes unpunished. Rather than engage such criticism on its merits, these groups leverage their significant financial resources, fundamentalist support, and lobbying power to pressure discordant universities to cease investigation, government actors to fall into line with the pro-Zionist agenda, and other institutions to censor or punish advocacy in support of Palestinian rights. 
Let’s look at some examples of freedom of speech falling victim to politics in full sight of civil-minded progressives:
When University of Illinois Professor Steven Salaita criticized Israel on Twitter, and his superiors fired him, scholars from all over the world expressed righteous outrage, claiming that this specific university, as well the university system at large, had become too submissive to wealthy donors, who have the leverage and power to dictate decisions involving hiring and tenure of university staff.  Emails surfaced shortly thereafter that suggested the university’s decision to drop Salaita was motivated by threats from wealthy donors with in disagreement with his views on Israel. 
When Reverend Graylan Hagler, an outspoken supporter of human rights in Palestine, was invited by the Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School to speak about the Israeli occupation, pro-Israel groups pressured the school to disinvite him.  Furthermore, Rev. Hagler also reported that he received numerous death threats from Christian Zionist groups like the Christians United For Israel, some of which detailed graphic threats. “We are going to kill you in the name of Christ if you come to Rochester,” and “I hope you come here so I can spit in your face,” Hagler recounted. 
When Olympia Food Co-op, a nonprofit corporation committed to making food accessible to more people while encouraging global economic and social justice, enacted a peaceful boycott of Israeli goods as part of the BDS movement, the response was similar. In addition to supporting protests, a network of pro-Israel advocacy groups invested heavily in a costly lawsuit brought upon Olympia Food Co-op, claiming that the organization overstepped its authority and breached its fiduciary duties in Kent L. and Linda Davis et al. v. Grace Cox et al.  However, the evidence is so overwhelmingly clear that even the officials adjudicating the case claimed that “The lawsuit appears to be an effort by a pro-Israel group and the Israeli government to silence Israel’s critics.”  While the court ruled in favor of Olympia Food Co-op, the reality of the situation is that even our judicial system has become a battleground for the advocacy of Palestinian human rights and the freedom of speech.
Ferrari Sheppard, a writer of the Huffington Post, asserts that in order for colonialism and occupation to be successful, “previous inhabitants of a region must be dehumanized, labeled savages, and finally, their very existence denied. Once this paradigm has been established, any and all acts of horror can be inflicted upon them without recourse. Thus, the stories of the oppressed become irrelevant.”
The fact of the matter is that America is not a neutral arbiter in the Israeli occupation of Palestine: it is an active participant. It partakes in the vilification of the Palestinian people, the villainization of the solidarity movement, and the denial of the expression for justice for Palestine, thus detaching its inhabitants from their humanity. This harmful aspect of the American/Israeli relationship can only be toppled once people recognize the importance and the significance of their words, and it is why this de facto “Palestinian Exception” to the freedom of speech clause is becoming more and more dire.
Yet despite what has been taken, we shall continue to fight for what is left.
Our freedom of expression is a precious right for which many have died fighting to practice. We must make it our sacred duty not to make their martyrdom meaningless. Our capacity for speech and expression renders us with that which powerful people fear the most: the capacity for change.
 "What Does Free Speech Mean?" United States Courts. Accessed November 5, 2015. http://www.uscourts.gov/about-federal-courts/educational-resources/about-educational-outreach/activity-resources/what-does
 Guarino, Mark. "Professor Fired for Israel Criticism Urges University of Illinois to Reinstate Him." The Guardian. September 9, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/education/2014/sep/09/professor-israel-criticism-twitter-university-illinois
 Barrows-Friedman, Nora. "Chicago Students Get Death Threat over Palestine Protest." The Electronic Intifada. October 30, 2015. Accessed November 5, 2015. https://electronicintifada.net/blogs/nora-barrows-friedman/chicago-students-get-death-threat-over-palestine-protest
 "The Palestinian Exception to Free Speech." Center for Constitutional Rights. September 1, 2015. Accessed November 5, 2015. https://ccrjustice.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/09/Palestine%20Exception%20Report%20Executive%20Summary%20Final.pdf
 Norton, Ben. "Rev. Graylan Hagler Disinvited to Speak on Palestine, Sent Death Threats." Mondoweiss. September 21, 2015. Accessed November 5, 2015. http://mondoweiss.net/2015/09/graylan-disinvinted-palestine.
 "Kent L. and Linda Davis Et Al. v. Grace Cox Et Al." December 1, 2014. Accessed November 5, 2015. https://www.nlg.org/sites/default/files/Oympia_AmicusBrief_FINAL.pdf
Photo Credit: Flickr User Gigi Ibrahim
The opinions and views expressed through this publication are the opinions of the designated authors and do not reflect the opinions or views of the Penn Undergraduate Law Journal, our staff, or our clients.
Anonymous Penn Student, just like the anonymous author of this article
11/23/2015 05:54:18 pm
Nice roundup of law at the beginning. Unfortunately, the main idea of the article has no background in it. People are free to say what they want. And others are free to think poorly of them because of it. If those others happen to be wealthy people who can afford to pursue lawsuits or who have decision making power at universities, so be it. It's one thing to make an argument that J-Street is too powerful or that the wealthy are biased against Palestinians. But to assert that this issue is a matter of law is specious. Even your one specific legal case, Davis v. Cox, was used in the article on the basis of its factual findings, not its legal decisions.
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