Policing Speech on Campus—Literally This Time

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader flags a disturbing incident that took place just down the street from our Atlantic offices in D.C.:

I’m curious what your readers think about the GW student who was reportedly forced to remove a Palestinian flag from his dorm-room window. For all the talk about policing speech, it seems pretty rare for sworn officers to get involved. That raises the First Amendment stakes considerably, don’t you think?

Quite. The student, Ramie Abounaja, was told that the flag violated housing code, yet “countless other national flags hang from dorm rooms there.” And even though Abounaja complied with the police order immediately, campus administrators threatened him with future disciplinary action. In his own words:

In an email to The Intercept, Abounaja wrote, “My flag was taken down not because it broke university policy, but because of the numerous complaints people have sent to the department.” He added, “I do believe that the students at GW are very much open minded. … However, a large percentage of students condemn Palestine (and anything related), so I would say that expression is difficult.”

The Intercept reporter, Andrew Fishman, notes that “Palestine Legal, a U.S. civil rights advocacy organization, reports 140 instances of suppression of Palestine advocacy in the first six months of 2015, 80 percent of which on college campuses.” Over to Robby Soave, who covers campus issues for Reason:

Fishman cites two other noteworthy examples: the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign fired Professor Steven Salaita for his anti-Israel tweets [a story Adam covered last month], and the University of California is attempting to label all criticism of the state of Israel as anti-Semitic hate speech.

I suspect it’s true that some of the loudest anti-PC voices are less likely to denounce the all-too-common censorship of pro-Palestinian students. On the other hand, I have no idea whether pro-Palestinian speech is [according to Fishman] “arguably the greatest and most common target” of censorious forces on campuses.

But we shouldn’t concern ourselves too much with figuring out who is the biggest loser in the campus free speech wars. If one person’s free expression rights can be crushed underfoot by an overzealous administrator, campus security officer, or emotionally insecure student, then everyone on campus is in danger.