Protesters Charge University With Quelling Free Speech

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Protesters outside the chancellor's office yesterday accused UC Berkeley administrators of stifling free speech by suspending a group of pro-Palestinian activists following their takeover of a campus building last month.

Calling on UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Berdahl to reverse the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine, 200 protesters marched from the steps of Sproul Hall to California Hall where they dispersed after an hour amid threats of arrest by police.

The rally was organized by Media Watch, a student group with representatives from the Berkeley chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and affirmative action-backing BAMN.

UC police had 30 officers on hand to control the protest and ensure a repeat of the Wheeler Hall siege did not occur, said UC Police Capt. Bill Cooper.

Prepared for protesters to march to the chancellor's office, UC police had locked down California Hall and positioned several officers in front of its doors, barring access to the building.

Protesters accused Berdahl and the administration of "chilling" free speech on campus, saying university officials were unfairly punishing the group in an attempt to safeguard UC's $6.4 billion investment in Israeli corporations. The group is known for advocating the university divest its holdings from companies that do business with Israel.

"The Palestinian question is about funding coming to campus," said one protester. "(The university) wants to silence Palestinians so more donations come to campus."

Some held signs saying, "Occupy a building, get suspended. Occupy Palestine, get $6 billion."

But UC spokesperson Janet Gilmore denied the protesters' claims, saying that the regents' investment in Israeli corporations did not influence UC Berkeley's decision to suspend the group.

"The university fully supports and protects free speech rights," Gilmore said. "SJP was placed on interim suspension because its actions disrupted the rights of other students to an education."

Protesters read a statement by Asian American activist Yuri Kochiyama, in which she called the university "a stifling administration power machine."

"Free speech is a human right," the statement read. "What a shame that a once proudly radical university would suppress (civil, nonviolent dissent)."

Administrators have said that although other protesters have occupied campus buildings, Students for Justice in Palestine is the first group to significantly disrupt learning, which they call a "core mission" of the university.

By suspending the group, the administration bans the group from tabling and reserving space on Sproul Plaza for group events and reserving campus classrooms for meetings.

Gilmore said these were "extra privileges" only given to registered student groups "in good standing."

Hoku Jeffrey, an ASUC senator and member of BAMN, said the suspension of Students for Justice in Palestine affects free speech for all students on campus.

"The restriction of (SJP's) civil liberties is excessive and heavy-handed," he said. "It is a threat to all student groups on campus. All student groups must stand opposed to this."

"We are disciplined. We are organized. We are peaceful," protesters yelled to Berdahl through megaphones. "We want dialogue."

Protesters handed a letter addressed to the chancellor to a campus official listing their demands and promising they would return.


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