(NEW YORK )– Rutgers University-New Brunswick became the fourth university, and first public university, this week to suspend a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

This “interim suspension” prevents the group from participating in campus activities or promoting campus programs. According to the University, it was initiated based on multiple complaints that the group allegedly “disrupted classes, a program, meals, and students studying” and that vandalism occurred at the Rutgers Business School during one of their programs. In a letter to the group, an administrator stated that under Rutgers policies, they have the authority to enact such a suspension when there is “reasonable basis to conclude that the continued activities by the student organization pose a substantial and immediate threat to the safety and well-being of others, or the suspension of organizational activities is needed to maintain preservation of the University.” In the letter, the group is given two working days to appeal.

The suspension was announced the same day the federal Department of Education opened a Title VI investigation into allegations of antisemitism at Rutgers. It also comes after three private universities suspended their chapters of SJP for various policy infractions this fall. The universities have failed to offer sufficient transparency to fully address concerns about viewpoint discrimination directed at speech critical of Israel. 

In a statement, Rutgers-New Brunswick SJP questioned why they had been suspended based only on “complaints” and stated that the university did not substantiate the allegations “by date, testimony, or description of incidents.” They also allege that the university failed to alert them of their suspension or give them advance opportunity to refute the allegations prior to their suspension.  

“There must be a high bar for suspending student groups for political activity, and without full transparency detailing what specific speech or conduct crossed the line, the students are right to ask if their case is being fairly adjudicated,” said Jonathan Friedman, director of the Free Expression and Education program at PEN America. “If this decision was made hastily in response to the DoE investigation, that would certainly be additional cause for concern.”

“Antisemitism is an undeniable problem on college campuses, but suppressing and censoring student groups is not the way to combat it,” Friedman said. “And a ‘suspend first, ask questions later’ approach will chill political discourse and strain relations on campus. It is right that the group has the opportunity to appeal, and we hope that the University will be fully forthcoming with the details of their investigation and what shaped their decision. This will be essential to maintain trust in the institution’s ability to uphold free speech rights equally for all.”

The spread of hatred can impair open discourse and poison a healthy learning environment.  Amid an increasingly menacing climate, PEN America believes campus leaders have an obligation to be responsive to threats, intimidation, and students’ encounters with overt discrimination, and to ensure that they address students’ concerns through approaches that adhere to laws and campus policies protecting academic freedom and free speech. Such an approach should include robust dialogue, education, and firm denunciations of antisemitism and Islamophobia

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.

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