Professor Hagit Messer-Yaron
Vice-Chair of the Council of Higher Education
Dear Professor Messer-Yaron,
Re: Prohibiting Punitive Measures Against Students for Online Comments
We are writing to you to request that you instruct the heads of Israel’s academic institutions that they have neither the authority, nor the duty, to judge students and take punitive measures against them in respect of statements they have posted on social networks. This instruction is urgently required as a number of academic institutions have already imposed harsh sanctions on students because of their online comments, and since a number of universities have announced that they intend to track student discourse on social media sites and that students will be punished in response to radical and offensive statements, as set forth below:
- Since the abduction and murder of the three Israeli youths and the Palestinian youth from Shuafat, and even more so since the beginning of the fighting in Gaza, social network platforms have been inundated with belligerent encounters between the right and the left, between Jews and Arabs, and with heartfelt sentiments and viewpoints of users on both sides. Different online groups have taken upon themselves the task of identifying users who speak out against the military operation, government policies and IDF soldiers, or alternatively users who express condemnation of Israeli Palestinians or Gaza. These groups have even taken measures to bring about the dismissal of workers and the expulsion of students owing to their positions that they have published online, or their support of other people’s online comments.
- In recent days it has become clear that higher education institutions are not remaining indifferent to this phenomenon, and that at least some of them have decided to take an active role in policing online dialogue and punishing students who have made unworthy statements, sometimes even by expelling them from the institution. For example, the Hadassah Academic College suspended an Arab student who had ridiculed wounded IDF soldiers on her Facebook page. The student was forbidden access to the college campus, had her scholarship retroactively revoked and had a complaint filed against her with Israel Police.  It was additionally reported that two Arab students from Ariel University and the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, will be made to face a disciplinary hearing as a result of their online comments made following the kidnapping of the three Israeli boys.  In another report relating to a student studying medicine at the Technion, it appears that the student is facing expulsion from the institution.
- Furthermore, Tel Aviv University announced during the weekend that while it ordinarily permits a high level of free expression for its students, it will now punish students who make “radical and offensive” online comments.  Be’er Sheva University went one step further when the university president sent a letter to staff and students announcing that “the university is tracking online discourse” and that it will take all necessary steps against students who express radical and extreme views.
- Without having resolved the debate on the limits of free speech in the private sphere, and the definition of what constitutes this sphere at all, academic institutions possess neither the authority, nor the role, of serving as though police and monitoring students’ online activity. It is certainly not the role of these institutions to police public discourse and judge what constitutes “radical” or “offensive” expressions, or to decide what reaches the level of racial incitement as specified by law.
- Institutions of higher education are not private members clubs, and admission is not conditional upon possessing a certificate of good character. The admission requirements of university faculties do not include holding any particular political viewpoint, lacking any racist inclinations or possessing emotional restraint. The relationship between an educational institution and its students, which are reflected in school policies, does not apply to the content and modes of expression – irrespective of how harsh they may be – that does not relate to the academic institution and its faculty. This is especially the case when discourse is conducted outside of the academies.
- We are of course aware of the emotional turmoil that can be triggered by certain online posts, some of which are extremely outrageous and which can evoke shock and disgust. However, it is not the within the rights of universities and colleges to police discourse conducted outside their gates, in the private lives of students, especially when they have no bearing on the academic institution or campus life. This is particularly the case when the posts are not intended to harm the educational institution or its academic activities.
- Institutions of higher education do not bear any legal or public responsibility for its students’ statements – both Jewish and Arab. Deeming these institutions authorized to act against students in response to belligerent statements expressed in the virtual sphere during turbulent times – raises serious concerns that they are acting according to emotional and patriotic motives, which does not accord with their public function, nor does it concern the image of the institution that they stand for. This concern is further exacerbated by the fact that no actions have been taken against Jewish students, despite the fact that social forums are simmering with harsh and racist comments against Palestinians, in Israel and Gaza, some of which were written by students.
- At the beginning of June, following activities to commemorate the Nakba in various educational institutions, the Council of Higher Education adopted certain provisions regulating freedom of expression and the right to protest. According to these provisions, institutions of higher education can not prevent students from demonstrating or holding public activities apart from in specifically defined situations, which do not include statements condemning fighting or combat soldiers or gloating in response to falling rockets. (See the council decision from July 1, 2014). This becomes even clearer when it comes to virtual statements on social networks.
- Society’s commitment to free speech is especially tested during times of serious national disputes and deep societal divisions, and institutions of higher education gain no benefit by the political correctness or silence of their students. Unfortunately, instead of stimulating critical discourse and calling for tolerance, several university heads are being swept up in a storm of anger and belligerence, and even contributing to this atmosphere with their comments and deeds that promote a witch hunt among students with the aim of punishing them for the views – harsh and insensitive though they may be.
Therefore, we request that the Council of Higher Education provide explicit instructions that academic institutions possess neither the authority, nor the role, to judge and punish students with respect to any positions published outside the walls of the institution.
Attorney Tal Hassin
CC: Professor Rivka Carmi, President of Ben-Gurion University
Professor Joseph Klafter, President of Tel Aviv University
 Tel Aviv University: Embracing the IDF; Punishing extremity online, The Marker 27.07.2014