Whose voice will they silence next?
Published: Wednesday, April 18, 2012
Updated: Wednesday, April 18, 2012 13:04
On March 27, 2012, Jimmy Zuniga, Cory Faragon and Matt Parsons, three members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), attempted to intimidate, censure and suppress the free speech of those who disagree with them. Thankfully, the student judiciary ruled against them, and they failed in this instance. The Tufts community must stay vigilant, so that dialogue continues to be valued over shouting matches and judicial action.
For the past year, I have served as a member of the Tufts Community Union Senate. I was approached by Friends of Israel (FOI) to sign a “Leadership Statement,” stating “I support the U.S.−Israel Relationship.” The statement is a list of Tufts students who lead various organizations, and it is meant to demonstrate that the United States−Israel relationship has wide support across campus. I agreed with the statement and allowed them to put my name and title on the image, which ran as an advertisement in The Tufts Daily.
I received mixed reactions for signing the Leadership Statement. I have friends who told me that it was great and friends who strongly disagreed with it. I also know students who said that the inclusion of my title was superfluous and irrelevant to the statement. But only three people, without bringing their concern to my attention or attempting a dialogue, submitted an official complaint to the student Judiciary. Six other signatories and I were forced to stand in front of a panel and defend our right to express a view with which the trio — all members of SJP — did not agree.
The bylaw in question mandates that the TCU Senate officially votes on issues before members use the Senate name in advocating for those issues. It is an ethics−related bylaw, meant to prevent members from mischaracterizing or miscommunicating a Senate position, so that nobody says “The TCU Senate supports X issue” when X issue has not even been discussed.
Zuniga, Faragon and Parsons argued that signing the Leadership Statement was a violation of the bylaw because members of Senate included their titles next to a statement of personal opinion. The ad literally said, “The views expressed are my own and do not represent the positions or opinions of my stated leadership role or organization;” nevertheless, the complainants argued that it implied a Senate endorsement. In Zuniga’s own words, “Senators, more than other student leaders, carry social capital with their titles and should not use it to influence others.” Therefore, the complainants argued, I am forbidden from making a public statement that says, “I am a member of the TCU Senate. Speaking only for myself, I believe X.”
The trio used a self−evidently incorrect interpretation of the Senate bylaws to make their case. We know this because every single member of Senate that actually voted on the bylaw disagreed with Zuniga, Faragon and Parsons’ interpretation of it. We also know this because of the unworkable, myopic and anti−free speech nature of their argument. Zuniga argued that members of Senate “should not use [their titles] to influence others,” and therefore are not allowed to include their titles next to a statement of opinion. Therefore, logic would follow that I am not allowed to sign a Daily op−ed as “Jonathan Danzig, TCU Senator.” I would not be allowed to include my title in an email to an administrator. I would not even be allowed to post on Facebook, “I am on Senate. I endorse X person for reelection.” With all three, I am using my position on Senate to add credibility to my opinion.
Had the complaint succeeded, it would have had an enormous chilling effect on free speech at Tufts. At best, my co−signees and I would have been censured; at worst, we would have been publicly removed from the TCU Senate. But it seems to me that agenda−driven intimidation was at the heart of this complaint. In a post to the SJP Facebook group, Faragon (under the name “Cory DeSole”) wrote “SJP PEOPLE. COME TO SOGO NOW to support us in our hearing against Friends of Israel. It’s time do [sic] demonstrate your commitment to the cause.” Or, as SJP wrote in its official group minutes, “Outcome is not the central issue — SJP and FOI were seen as equals — question before you sign something.” The “cause” in question is not rigorous adherence to Senate bylaws; it is the delegitimization of Friends of Israel, a group that SJP opposes.
Suffice it to say, explaining to family members why I had to appear before a “disciplinary panel” was an uncomfortable, unwarranted and unwelcome conversation. I have had to calmly explain that a) it was not a disciplinary panel and b) I was found not in violation. Because of Zuniga, Faragon and Parsons, I now have to explain this to anyone who searches my name on Google. This is what I mean by “chilling effect.”
There is a simple difference between the defendants and the complainants: When the defendants disagree with someone, they voice their opinion; when the complainants disagree with someone, they use institutional power to suppress their freedom of speech. There is simply no equality here; nobody at Tufts has ever tried to officially censure Zuniga, Faragon, Parsons or any member of SJP for stating a point of view.
I would not be nearly as concerned about the actions of these three were it not indicative of a more troubling pattern. SJP has given no indication of distancing itself from three of its members’ attacks on freedom of expression. SJP similarly issued no public condemnation after someone anonymously placed “Apartheid” stickers over posters advertising a Hillel event about Judaism and homosexuality. When Israeli journalist Ben−Dror Yemini spoke at Tufts, members of SJP laughed at him and interrupted his speech. Yet this is a group that, on Facebook, purports to “incorporate all views.”