ACLU Open Letter to Colleges and Universities: Reject Efforts to Restrict Constitutionally Protected Speech on Campuses

Organization Warns Against Investigations of Pro-Palestinian Student Groups For Speech On College Campuses

November 1, 2023 4:00 pm

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WASHINGTON — Today, in an open letter delivered to over 650 college and university leaders, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) expressed its strong opposition to any efforts to stifle free speech and association on college campuses, and urged universities to reject calls to investigate, disband, or penalize pro-Palestinian student groups for exercising their free speech rights. The letter follows a call to universities to investigate Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters for “material support for terrorism,” without citing any evidence of such support.

“We recognize that colleges and universities are managing heightened threats and anguished tensions on their campuses while trying to keep students safe — and we take those concerns seriously,” said Anthony D. Romero, executive director of the ACLU. “The devastating conflict in Israel and Palestine has embroiled campuses here at home, sometimes resulting in speech that includes terms we vehemently disagree with or even find offensive and repugnant. Yet it’s precisely in times of crisis and fear that university leaders must remain firm in their commitment to free speech, open debate, and peaceful dissent on campus. A blanket call to investigate every chapter of a pro-Palestinian student group for ‘material support to terrorists’ — without even an attempt to cite evidence — is unwarranted, wrong, and dangerous. It echoes America’s mistakes during the McCarthy era and is counterproductive. We urge college and university leaders to hold fast to our nation’s best traditions and reject proposals to restrict constitutionally protected speech.”

Authored by ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero, ACLU Legal Director David Cole, ACLU National Security Project Director Hina Shamsi, and ACLU National Speech, Privacy and Technology Director Ben Wizner, the open letter:

  • Urges college and university leaders to reject baseless calls to investigate or punish student organizations for exercising their constitutionally protected free speech rights.
  • Explains that students’ political rhetoric is not “material support for terrorism.”
  • Explains that the First Amendment and principles of academic freedom protect the right of student groups to associate and speak out on matters of public concern, and that local chapters of student groups cannot be punished for their association with national organizations — with the letter noting that “investigations chill speech, foster an atmosphere of mutual suspicion, and betray the spirit of free inquiry.”

“All students deserve equal access to education — free from harassment and discrimination on campus. Schools have a responsibility to address discrimination and harassment wherever it occurs,” said David Cole, ACLU legal director. “But the experience of our country’s universities during the McCarthy era demonstrates that ideologically-motivated efforts to police speech on campus destroy the foundation on which academic communities are built.”

To learn more, read the full text of the letter here

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