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UChicago scholar wants Students for Justice in Palestine punished

Institution fears bad press if it punishes activists who break rules: scholar 

The University of Chicago should punish Students for Justice in Palestine for disrupting campus events and effectively shutting down free speech, according to a longtime professor.

Jerry Coyne, professor emeritus of ecology and evolution, said he believes his school has betrayed its well-known commitment to free speech principles over the past six months by letting pro-Palestinian activists disrupt campus life and the rights of others.  

In a recent phone interview with The College Fix, Coyne said the university is afraid of bad press if it punishes protesters who break rules. 

That commitment is a key aspect of the school’s public identity, so it’s important. Furthermore, Coyne said “there is a climate of antisemitism building on campus, and the administration is not eager to stop it.” (The ADL gave UChicago an F for antisemitism in its report cards last week.)

Coyne, who writes the widely read blog “Why Evolution is True,” recently penned an essay headlined “J’Accuse!” arguing the school is now allowing the suppression of speech. 

This is yet another campus collision between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students. This one took place, initially, on Oct. 19 last year, when Jewish individuals at the university gathered in the quad to demonstrate in solidarity with Israel and listen to campus Jewish leaders. Students for Justice in Palestine disrupted the event. 

SJP ignored the rules and disrupted and deplatformed the pro-Israel students by shouting with megaphones. The rally came to an early end, and no one heard the speakers. 

He wrote the school is “either not punishing those who engage in suppression or giving them ridiculously light punishments. The result is that there is no palpable deterrent to students who want to silence others or violate University policy by disrupting activities.”

“Because there are no serious sanctions for disrupting speech or academic activities, one organization has sworn to continue its illegal actions,” he wrote.

In his blog, Coyne wrote there were three deans on hand at the original event, and no one stopped SJP. Nor were there any consequences for them. Even when student leaders of the Jewish event, Talia Elkins and Eliza Ross, sent letters to the administration, nothing happened. 

President Paul Alivisatos wrote a message to the community, stating while protests are an essential part of free expression,

“In any venue, no member of the community may shout down or seek to prevent the protected expression of those with whom they disagree. You may not tear down a poster. You may not seek to intimidate or threaten another person, or prevent them from hearing an invited speaker. These are egregious offenses against our community. We have … disciplinary action when needed.” 

But there was no disciplinary action for SJP. 

In a phone conversation, Coyne stated there should have been consequences.  SJP should have been moved away from the demonstration and stopped. In their three subsequent instances of protest that broke the school’s rules, he said there should have been more serious punishments. 

As a staunch supporter of the Chicago Principles Coyne said “the college should ensure that groups adhere to UC rules of free expression,” which boil down to “first amendment with caveats, including time, place, and manner” of expression. 

This means SJP should have been “warned for their first violation, and punished more severely for subsequent violations,” of which there were three. The point of the punishment is deterrence. “No deterrence leads to more problematic actions,” Coyne said.

SJP held a protest in front of the administration building, chanting from which disrupted classes. They held a protest in front of the admissions building. And they held a “die in” at a Pret-a-Manger on campus.

Students were punished for criminal trespass in the two protests, but the punishments were dropped by the city. “I don’t know if that was the preference of the administration,” Coyne said. But he wouldn’t be surprised. 

At this point in the year-long destruction of ordered free speech on campus, Coyne said he is ready to think about suspending SJP as a registered student organization.  

Coyne is Jewish, and remains appalled that “Jewish students on campus are frightened. It’s a cliché, but they don’t feel ‘safe.’  Their speech has been chilled. There are many issues they won’t speak about freely on campus because they are afraid of the consequences.” 

Which is a sad end to free speech on a storied campus. 

MORE: ‘You’re dead’: Protesters shout down congressman’s speech at U. Georgia

IMAGE: The Poetry of Reality with Richard Dawkins/YouTube

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