When It Comes to Palestine, Free Speech Rights Are Under Attack

A frightening wave of firings, threats, and retaliation against pro-Palestinian writers and activists has chilled the political climate. Now, more than ever, the “Palestine exception” to free speech standards is being challenged.

Palestine Legal has documented numerous reports of censorship that together paint a picture of systematic repression. (Nick Lachance/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Last week’s news that the Associated Press had fired a young journalist because of her support for Palestinian rights while in college at Stanford broke Twitter.

The Stanford College Republicans (who had often railed about cancel culture) bragged about their successful cancelation of Emily Wilder, which seemed all the more appalling given that Israel had just bombed the AP office in Gaza.

There’s a lot of talk these days about the liberal and right-wing hypocrisy around cancel culture and how Palestine exemplifies it. In 2015, Palestine Legal (where I work) and the Center for Constitutional Rights published a report calling it the Palestine exception to free speech. Is there a “Palestine exception”? Is Palestine the “real” cancel culture? Or is it something worse?

As Palestinians unite in unprecedented uprisings against Israel’s ethnic cleansing and apartheid, students, professors, grassroots activists, and pretty much anyone with a conscience are speaking out against US support for Israeli war crimes.

And here at Palestine Legal, our phones are buzzing with reports of censorship and attempted censorship, each of which may look like an isolated incident of cancel culture, but together paint a picture of systematic repression.

In the past week, one person told us how Facebook blocked her for thirty days for a reply post stating that “Israel esta hacienda terrorism por racismo . . . matando ninos y mujeres y mintiendo q eran terrorists” (Israel was engaging in racist terrorism . . . killing children and women and lying by saying they were terrorists) — while it kept the original post calling Palestinians killed in Gaza “terroristas.” We learned Venmo donations with the word Palestine are being blocked, but language suggesting money is going to “Israeli cluster bombs” and “IDF chemical weapons” is going straight through without issue. And that’s not to mention the hundreds of reports groups like Access Now and 7almeh have received of social media companies suspending accounts and blocking hashtags of users reporting Israeli Army violence.

It’s not just Big Tech that’s censoring support for Palestine.

People with family in Palestine have reported losing their jobs or having their jobs threatened over social media posts voicing objections to Israel’s eviction, discrimination, or killing of their family members.

At Middlebury College in Vermont, Palestinian American senior and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) copresident Kamli Faour faced multiple threats after her group launched an educational website on Israeli apartheid. Fearing for her safety, Faour didn’t leave her room for days and considered leaving campus. (SJP’s Jewish copresident, Matt Martignoni, received no such threats, though Middlebury did pressure Martignoni, who is the grandchild of Holocaust survivors, to delete language critical of Zionism from the group’s website.) Parents called for SJP’s removal from student housing, while the anti-Palestinian group StandWithUs threatened Middlebury with a civil rights complaint, claiming that allowing SJP to advertise the End Israeli Apartheid website link without punishment created an antisemitic “double standard.”

Though, in 2017, the college put out a statement protecting the speech of discredited white supremacist Charles Murray, it told students with SJP — who made multiple requests for a statement recognizing the group’s right to exist and speak on campus — that the college was unable to do so for them because “any further messaging from the administration will most likely escalate and not diminish harm.”

Down south, in Tallahassee, Florida, Palestinian junior Ahmad Daraldik just filed a civil rights complaint with the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights after Florida State University not only tolerated but amplified a pattern of rampant anti-Palestinian discrimination for nearly a year. Last June, Ahmad made history as the first Palestinian to be elected as student senate president. But just days later, anti-Palestinian students unearthed an Instagram post where Daraldik, who spent part of his childhood in the West Bank, cursed Israel’s occupation.

Daraldik was subject to a vicious smear campaign that featured Florida state legislators, including the director responsible for the state’s COVID-19 response, angry parents and donors, and even an Israeli-government-sponsored cyberbullying app.

In the past two weeks, we have received a record number of calls from people in the United States who are censored, threatened, or falsely accused of antisemitism for supporting Palestinian rights. A dean at a public university on the East Coast ordered that students not make social media posts supporting “one side.” The dean later apologized, after students pushed back on First Amendment grounds, claiming she was worried about their job prospects.

But the story of how people who have dared criticize Israel have lost their jobs is not a new one. Is there a professor, anywhere in this country, who does not recall how Steven Salaita was fired from a tenured position at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagne for tweets critical of Israel’s 2014 bombing of Gaza? Salaita sued and the university ultimately settled, but Salaita’s dream to teach and research is no more. He now drives a school bus.

And, of course, Marc Lamont Hill was fired from CNN, Angela Davis lost a human rights award (it was reoffered), and educators across the country have lost their jobs for supporting Palestinian freedom, speaking out against the political ideology of Zionism, or simply sharing a New York Times article with the headline “ISRAELIS KILL DOZENS IN GAZA.” (This happens in Canada, too.)

From 2014 to 2020, Palestine Legal responded to 1707 incidents of suppression. Having worked there since the very beginning, I can tell you the stories range from absurd to surreal to heartbreaking. But the vast majority of these incidents I must keep confidential because the fear of harm is so real.

One incident that stuck with me over the years is how, in 2011, the Oakland Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA) canceled an exhibit of Palestinian children’s artwork depicting Israel’s 2008–9 bombing due to pressure from anti-Palestinian groups.

I had lived above a Palestinian orphanage in the West Bank town of Tulkarem for about a year during the Second Intifada, and the children’s art, which included crayon drawings of soldiers and tanks and Israeli flags, reminded me so much of the art Palestinian children of Tulkarem would draw. MOCHA justified the cancellation by claiming the children’s art contained inappropriate content — though the museum has previously featured artwork by Iraqi children depicting the US occupation and by children who lived through World War II.

Working at Palestine Legal, I am reminded of how Joseph McCarthy was insistent about rooting out communism in every walk of American life. People working in media, academia, and industry were called into the House Un-American Activities Committee and questioned on their support for communism.

While each of these incidents in isolation may look like the censorious actions of a particular institution, when you put them together, you can’t help but notice there are few places where one may safely speak out for Palestinian freedom without threat of false accusations or career-damaging smears.

But the tide is changing. In contrast to assumptions during the McCarthy era, which destroyed a generation of American leftists, the knee-jerk, unquestioned pro-Israel response can no longer be taken for granted. While conservative news outlets and lawmakers like Senator Tom Cotton called for Wilder’s cancellation, she garnered a remarkable outpouring of high-profile support.

Of course, censorship is not unique to Palestine. As the University of North Carolina’s recent denial of tenure to Nikole Hannah-Jones for her work on the 1619 Project will tell you, where people speak up for racial justice, there will be censorship.