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UNC administrators, state politicians alarmed by Students for Justice in Palestine

20231118_TRAN_university-sjp-protest-occupation-4.jpg
Students hold up signs in support for Palestine outside of Wilson Library during an organized march for Palestine on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

The day after UNC Students for Justice in Palestine held its “day of resistance” rally on the steps of Wilson Library, Marty Kotis, a member of the UNC Board of Trustees, sent an email to University leaders expressing concern about the student organization.

In his email to Provost Chris Clemens and Senior Advisor to the Office of the Chancellor Chris McClure, Kotis compared SJP's Instagram post about the rally, which featured the silhouette of a paraglider, to a “noose celebrating a lynching.”

Clemens responded the next day — “There is no doubt the flyer represents a celebration of violence and murder.”

Other emails obtained by The Daily Tar Heel include comments from BOT chair John Preyer and Kotis along with two elected officials, U.S. Rep. Kathy Manning, (D-NC 6th), and N.C. Rep. Jon Hadister, (R-Guilford), addressed to the University about SJP.

The aforementioned rally took place on Oct. 12, five days after militant group Hamas attacked Israel. The UNC chapter of SJP used the same imagery in its flyer as other pro-Palestine groups across the country. The organization has since removed the post from its Instagram page. 

Chapters of SJP at universities across the country have recently come under fire for their advocacy. On Nov. 16, the American Civil Liberties Union helped the University of Florida chapter of SJP file a lawsuit challenging one of those actions — an all-out ban of the student group in Florida's state universities. 

Brian Hauss, senior staff attorney at ACLU’s Speech, Privacy and Technology Project and a lawyer on the UF SJP case, said public and private universities cannot fulfill their purpose if their leaders punish their students for acting within their protected right to free speech. 

“If we’ve learned anything from the experience of our country’s universities during the McCarthy era — and more recently in the years since 9/11 — it’s that viewpoint-based efforts to police speech on campus destroys the foundation on which academic communities are built,” Hauss said in an email.

The emails

On the morning of Oct. 12, Haley Barringer, deputy chief of staff for Manning, reached out to the staff of the UNC Office of Federal Affairs asking to set up a call with Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz about the imagery and slogan SJP used in its Instagram post for the demonstration. A spokesperson from Manning's office confirmed that she talked with Guskiewicz about the rally and poster. 

Later that day, Kotis communicated with Jones, Preyer and Clemens in addition to members of the University administration and security officials. In his first email, he said he and Hardister were concerned about the Instagram post and reports of speeches in Arabic. 

“We should also be prepared for more protests and potential violence on Friday, October 13th given that Hamas is calling for an all out jihad and appealing to people around the world to act on that day,” Kotis wrote in the email. 

Kotis told The DTH on Nov. 29 that he still has not been able to translate the chants from the rally.

“If they said, ‘Kill everybody in the room,’ that’s an immediate direct threat right?” he said. “But we don’t know what somebody is saying when they are speaking a different language.” 

Hardister echoed Kotis’ concerns about the rally and comments made in Arabic in a subsequent email. Hardister did not responded to The DTH's requests for comment.

Frederick E. Sellers, the vice president for safety & emergency operations for the UNC System, responded to Kotis on Oct. 12, saying both University and government security forces monitored the situation, including “conversations conducted in foreign languages.”

UNC SJP said it was disturbed but not surprised to learn that the University administration and BOT members have been surveilling the group, specifically condemning efforts to "retroactively punish students, staff, and faculty as we exercise our free speech rights as guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution."

On Oct. 13, Preyer, the BOT chair, asked if SJP received University funding. Kotis followed up with screenshots from the Undergraduate Student Government's Fall 2023 Budget. In the last funding cycle, SJP received $1,380. 

Over the next few days, Kotis questioned the legality of wearing masks at protests in further emails. SJP has asked participants to wear masksat its rallies, which Kotis said violates N.C. Statute 14-12.8 as well as University policy.

The DTH did not obtain any further communication about the mask policy or enforcement. Statements from Sellers and UNC Police Chief Brian James via UNC Media Relations did not address the mask policy either. 

University and SJP response

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In a statement, Media Relations said Guskiewicz and Clemens were "disturbed to see the paraglider imagery promoting the SJP protest and do not condone calls for violence or prejudice against any member of our community."

Media Relations also noted Guskiewicz found the imagery "troublesome" and made his "concerns clear" to some SJP student leaders in a meeting in October.

Kotis said he personally considers the image in the post to be harassment. He also said the group’s Nov. 17 sit-in, which occupied South Building for just over three hours, also violated free speech. 

He cited University policy 1300.8, which prohibits action that disrupts University functions. Kotis said the University should identify individual students who participated in the sit-in and sanction them depending on their role and previous history, potentially “leading up to expulsion.”

"Public universities must remember that while it can be challenging to balance public safety with the need for vigorous public debate, the Constitution requires public officials to protect the free speech rights of everyone, not just those with whom they agree," Hauss said.

His statement also said landmark cases have established a precedent that prohibits colleges from denying recognition or generally available funding to student groups on viewpoint discriminatory grounds. 

No statement from the University, nor any of the comments from the BOT have addressed any efforts to remove funding from the student group. 

UNC SJP said that videos from the sit-in affirm that the organization did not violate University policy as employees in South Building had space to move freely. 

“A university that materially and discursively supports an ongoing genocide should not take for granted their privilege to conduct business as usual,” UNC SJP said in the statement. "We have a responsibility to exhaust multiple avenues of action when hundreds are being killed in Gaza every day and our demands for UNC to take accountability for its role in these deaths remain unaddressed."

If the University administration or the BOT decides to sanction UNC SJP, the group said it plans on seeking legal counsel and responding appropriately.

@_aishabee_

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com


Aisha Baiocchi

Aisha Baiocchi is the 2023-24 enterprise managing editor at The Daily Tar Heel. She has previously served as a senior writer on the university desk. Aisha is a junior majoring in journalism at UNC and international comparative studies at Duke University, as well as a minor in history.

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