Northeastern U students won’t be allowed to vote on BDS
Anthony Turner is a student at Northeastern University and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine. He submitted this article to FPM, which we are proud to publish. We wish Justice at Northeastern for Anthony, SJP and all the student body.
Apartheid Standing, Free Speech Falling With Help From Northeastern University
On March 16, 2015, the Student Government Association (SGA) at Northeastern University blocked students from voting on a referendum asking Northeastern’s Board of Trustees to divest from four companies that provide infrastructural support for human rights violations in Palestine – Caterpillar, Raytheon, Motorola, and Hewlett-Packard. The referendum question, proposed by Northeastern University Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), was inspired in part by Northeastern’s decision to divest from companies with interests in apartheid South Africa in the 1980s.
Sadly, the SGA’s undemocratic move comes just a year after Northeastern, at the behest of outside interest groups, attempted to silence SJP for distributing leaflets about Israel’s policy of demolishing Palestinian homes. The university eventually reinstated SJP after considerable media attention, pressure from the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts and other legal groups, and organizing by student activists.
While suppression of free speech at Northeastern is not a new phenomenon, the SGA’s March 16 decision is particularly disturbing due to the fact that, this time, the entire student body – not just one group – was barred from exercising its right to debate this important issue.
The SGA first attempted to shut down debate on this issue on February 19th, when the Executive Cabinet sent SJP a pseudo-legal memo claiming that the issue was too complicated for Northeastern students to understand, and that asking the trustees to divest from companies engaged in human rights violations was “hostile” and “threatening.” From the absurd and patronizing legalese and citations used in the memo, it was clear that the SGA was under pressure from outside groups to disallow a vote. The stated goal of these well-financed national lobbying groups, which noted their tactics with shameless candor, is to suppress Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) measures, and is achieved by openly meddling in the democratic processes historically available to university students. However, about a week after its initial decision, the Executive Cabinet realized its actions violated its own Constitution, reversed its decision, and allowed for official student petitioning to go forward.
SJP went ahead and started collecting undergraduate signatures (SGA bylaws require 750 signatures to be presented to the Senate within three weeks in order to gauge the student body’s interest in a question). Within three days, SJP had the 750 signatures required, and with it their mandate from the student body for the question to come up for a vote.
Still, SJP was concerned that the student senate would try to block a vote once again using faulty legal analysis. Civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts, Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, and the National Lawyers Guild sent a letter to the SGA advising them that criticism of Israel’s policies is protected political speech, and urged the SGA to resist calls to suppress student democracy. This came in addition to an outpouring of support for SJP from a coalition of 32 Boston community organizations, the former Executive Director of Northeastern’s Hillel and University Jewish Chaplain Martin Federman, and over 5,000 people across the country who signed online petitions supporting the Northeastern student body’s right to vote.
During the final SGA hearing, student senators were tasked with approving or rejecting student referenda based on three criteria: feasibility, adherence to university policy, and fairness of wording. The senate was expressly prohibited from rejecting a referendum based on whether or not they agree or disagree with the issue – that decision is for the student body to make.
Unfortunately, despite vocal resistance from a handful of student senators, the majority succumbed to outside pressure and voted against allowing the referendum on the ballot (9 in favor, 25 against, and 13 abstentions). Their arguments ranged from disappointing to ridiculous. Some said that voting would be pointless given the unlikelihood that the administration would listen, others argued that the referendum unfairly targeted Israel, and some even accused SJP of having “terrorist” aims despite its clear mission statement supporting justice and denouncing violence and oppression.
This flagrant violation of student democracy by the SGA has only strengthened and united the wide range of social justice groups at Northeastern. Together, these groups – ranging from workers’ rights groups to environmental justice groups – have a powerful following on campus, and have promised unrelenting solidarity as the fight for Palestinian justice continues. Northeastern students have proven that even as their administration and SGA fight for what’s wrong, they will never stop fighting for what’s right.