In the wake of the violence erupting in the embattled territory of Israel/Palestine, many Muslim students and their families, especially those who are directly affected by the conflict, may wish to exercise their First Amendment rights to protests or demonstrations in the school setting. Others are reporting bullying and harassment for speaking up on behalf of the Palestinian cause – or simply because of their religious identity as a Muslim. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, is issuing guidance to students being targeted for advocating on behalf of Palestinian rights or because of their Muslim faith. This guidance focuses on speech rights in educational settings and addressing any bullying that may result.
“Students have the right to visibly practice their faith and peacefully advocate for human rights without facing harassment, threats or punishment,” said CAIR Research & Advocacy Director Corey Saylor. “We encourage K-12 schools, colleges and universities to address this sudden surge in reports of abusive and discriminatory behavior and express support for students of all backgrounds, including Muslims and Palestinians. We encourage students impacted to report any incidents of abuse and seek assistance. We are here to help.”
CAIR has seen and received multiple reports of students harassed online and at school due to advocacy for Palestinian human rights in recent days, including reports of bullying against visibly Muslim students and disciplinary action in public school settings and instances of threatening messages targeting college students online.
The organization encourages all students experiencing interference or suppression of their free speech in educational settings or harassment due to their faith to document the incident and contact CAIR promptly. CAIR asks the same in instances of anti-Muslim or anti-Palestinian bullying or harassment in school.
Student Rights to Free Speech
- Students in all levels of education are afforded free speech within the public school setting, with two caveats: 1) offensive speech is afforded less protection in the public school system (outside the school setting this would be fully protected); 2) hate speech is not protected in public schools despite having at least partial protection in most other settings.
- You have the right to speak out, hand out flyers and petitions, and wear expressive clothing in school — as long as you don’t cause a disruption or violate the school’s content-neutral policies. Speech cannot incite people to violence (ever- not in or out of school)
- Schools can only limit students’ expression if they can reasonably predict that it will create a substantial disruption or material interference in school activities or invade the rights of others. The school disagreeing with your position or believing that your position is controversial does not necessarily mean that the speech is disruptive. Whether the speech is disruptive will depend on the circumstances.
- The Supreme Court has held that school authorities must respect students’ rights to express themselves outside of school, including their right to express dissenting or unpopular views. Schools do not have the same authority to punish students for speech outside of school as they do in school contexts.
- The First Amendment also prohibits “viewpoint discrimination” – government action (which includes action by public university officials) that burdens or suppresses speech based on viewpoint. This means that if a student or a group is punished because administrators don’t like their message, the university may be held accountable for violating students’ constitutional rights.
- Free speech protections do not extend to defamation, obscenity, “true threats” or speech that incites imminent violence or law-breaking.
- Students cannot be punished for publishing content on social media in most circumstances, unless it is threatening to the school, or members of the school- threats are never protected speech.
The team at Palestine Legal has prepared resources for students who are “advocating for justice in Palestine on campus.”
SEE: Palestine Legal’s Know Your Right’s Student Handbook
SEE ALSO: Palestine Legal’s Know Your Rights Video Series (video’s 2 and 4 are specifically relevant to your speech)
Similarly, the National Lawyers Guild team prepared a guide focused on law enforcement overreach targeting protestors.
SEE: National Lawyers Guild Know Your Rights: A Guide for Protestors
We also recognize that various forms of doxxing, a form of intimidation intended to silence speech by putting a person’s private information online, may be occurring. The team at ReThink Media presented a best practices training for advocates on this issue which is reshared here.
Bullying and Harassment
It includes advice such as how students can develop a plan to advocate for themselves in response to bullying, as well as step-by-step guidance for parents who seek to report incidents of bullying to school authorities.
The follow tips apply if you are experiencing bullying due to pro-Palestine advocacy:
Take Care of Yourself and Your Peers
- Experiencing bullying due to Palestine advocacy efforts can be difficult and scary. Maintain connections with peers and members of student organizations who can be a shoulder to lean on during challenging times.
- If you have a connection to a trusted university official (faculty member, staff member, etc.), ask them for support and, if you do not feel comfortable leaving your dorm, a letter to excuse you from attending class.
- If you are a leader or on the board of a student organization, consider hosting an event where affected students can share their experiences and feel supported. Also consider holding another event to invite a trusted university official (faculty member, staff member, etc.) who can listen to student concerns and recommend concrete actions for support.
Document and Report Incidents of Bullying
- Document everything. Take detailed notes of what you experienced and pictures if applicable. These can be shared with attorneys if legal action is possible.
- Identify and review school policies on bullying and discrimination. If comfortable, follow any channels to reporting incidents of bullying to university officials.
If university officials have been unresponsive and/or ineffective, contact outside organizations, such as Palestine Legal and the Council on American-Islamic Relations.
Guidance for Parents and Caregivers
The blog Haute Hijab curated a list of ways that parents can discuss the situation in Palestine with their children: https://blog.hautehijab.com/post/how-to-talk-to-your-kids-about-palestine-israel-and-the-resistance-movement-a-resource-guide
NPR also provides a balanced approach: https://www.npr.org/2023/10/11/1205017249/how-to-talk-to-children-violence-israeli-palestinian-gaza-hamas
If you are concerned that an educator, school administrator, or other leadership figure is not providing a balanced account of the events in Israel and Gaza, or they are punishing students for speaking up against a one-sided account, you may voice your concerns by contacting the school administration, the district leadership, or the state school board. Please contact CAIR Oklahoma if you need help finding the appropriate place to direct your concerns.
CAIR’s mission is to protect civil rights, enhance understanding of Islam, promote justice, and empower American Muslims.
La misión de CAIR es proteger las libertades civiles, mejorar la comprensión del Islam, promover la justicia, y empoderar a los musulmanes en los Estados Unidos.