(NEW YORK)—PEN America criticized Brandeis University today for its decision to revoke recognition of Students for Justice in Palestine on its campus, saying it had failed to point to any specific examples of how the chapter had violated the university’s student club policies.

The free speech and literary organization said without a more detailed explanation it appears Brandeis has engaged in “indefensible viewpoint discrimination.” 

Brandeis announced this week that they have rescinded recognition of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and said the move, which prevents SJP from using university resources or branding, was because of the allegation that the student club’s national organization “openly supports Hamas, a terrorist organization.”

In a letter to the group, a university representative also alleged that SJP’s conduct has amounted to threats and harassment, and is therefore not protected by Brandeis’s commitment to free expression principles. However, the letter does not specify particular actions or incidents involving the local SJP chapter that form the basis of its claim. The student group called the university administration’s move “racist” in an Instagram post.

In response, Kristen Shahverdian, PEN America’s senior manager of free expression and education, made the following comments:

“Private universities ought to uphold robust protections for students’ free expression and association. Even if they are not subject to the First Amendment, private universities like Brandeis have rightfully made their own commitments to upholding free speech. In this case, the university has made the striking decision to revoke recognition of their chapter of SJP, but without pointing to specific instances or actions that constitute violations of the university’s student club or other policies. If speech or behavior of the SJP club has indeed crossed the line into genuine threats or harassment, then the onus is on Brandeis to present an evidentiary record that makes that clear. Short of that, the plain impression left is that the university is engaging in indefensible viewpoint discrimination. At the end of the day, even speech that some may find deeply offensive, hateful, or menacing, does not itself provide justification for suppressing students’ right to free association.”

The decision comes amid other calls to investigate SJP for supporting terrorism, and to ban it from campuses, particularly in Florida. PEN America has previously stated that the latter raises grave free speech concerns, noting that the definition of “material support” for a terrorist organization does not include speech and that the state has not alleged that SJP has engaged in conduct that comports with its own definition of that term.”

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org 

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057