INTERVIEW: LILLIAN OSBORNE
From free speech to solidarity
Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at Loyola University Chicago has a long list of accomplishments, which is precisely why it frequently find itself targeted by a university administration seeking to limit activism. Lillian Osborne, president of Loyola SJP, spoke to about the group’s efforts to mobilize for Palestinian rights, free speech and the rights of campus workers.
HOW HAS the repression directed at SJP by Loyola’s administration impacted the right to free speech on campus?
I THINK there’s definitely been a chilling effect in the way the administration exerts force on campus.
In order to understand that, we have to understand what interests of the university are at stake. That starts with understanding the university as increasingly functioning like a corporation. Across the U.S., universities are responding to shareholders’ desires, rather than centering education first and foremost. The emphasis on profit creates a situation where everyone on campus is being repressed, not just students.
SJP has been at the center of administrative repression at Loyola and at other universities nationally. Last year, Loyola SJP was temporarily suspended and then put on probation for holding an unauthorized demonstration in which Palestinian students attempted to register for Taglit-Birthright Israel, a program that sends only Jewish students on free vacations to Israel. We were charged with harassment, bullying and anti-Semitism.
In fact, SJP did not organize the demonstration, yet it was held accountable for all pro-Palestine speech on campus. During the investigation of the incident, the students from Hillel who were tabling revealed that the table itself had not been registered, essentially violating the same event request process. However, SJP had its funding revoked for an entire semester and was forced to go through dialogue training to teach us how to engage in “civil” dialogue.
SJPs are targeted for two reasons. First, through BDS, students are challenging the profit motive and undemocratic structure of the corporate university by making demands on how the university should spend its money. Second, intersectionality and cross-movement solidarity are central to SJP’s mission–we see the connections between struggles.
So not only are we staking our claim on Loyola, we’re also doing it collectively, and understanding how campus repression affects all of us. That’s a huge threat to the status quo.
HOW DO you see that affecting other populations on campus?
PART OF the corporatization of the university is the increasing number of adjunct faculty positions and fewer tenure-track jobs, which creates a situation where many faculty members fear losing their jobs for organizing or speaking out politically.
A few weeks ago, we held a panel discussion with Steven Salaita, the University of Illinois professor who was fired for his Twitter commentary criticizing Israel’s bombing of Gaza in summer 2014. A faculty member who is not tenured helped us host the event because Loyola regulations prevented students from sponsoring it. But his department wouldn’t even sign off on it.
Eight different departments sponsored the same panel event at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Yet our faculty had to create a fake group called “Faculty for Free Speech” in order to sponsor the event. The faculty members were afraid of losing their jobs over the panel and had to hide behind an invented group to limit the risk of speaking out publicly and hosting Salaita here.
The adjunct faculty at Loyola is beginning to push back against this. They’re starting to organize with SEIU Faculty Forward, which is trying to organize adjuncts at various universities and works in conjunction with Fight for $15.
One professor who was really involved with the panel featuring Salaita was going to sign a petition with the Faculty Forward campaign. But he, along with other faculty members, was afraid of signing the petition. They were afraid that they might lose their jobs. So we see that the university is really suppressing the free speech of adjunct faculty workers regarding not only political speech, but also their right to form a union.
Contract workers are subject to increasing infringement on their free speech, too. Literally, they’re not allowed to talk to students while on the job. When students try to organize with the workers, managers come up and say, “Why are you talking to them?”
There were two women in the campus dining hall talking to food service workers recently, for example, and a manager came up and said, “You’re not allowed to be talking to them.” One woman said, “What basis do you have for this?” There’s no written policy, but workers really fear retaliation from management.
Then there’s the question of students’ rights on campus. The reason students don’t go out and protest more is that the system itself is so bureaucratic, you have to formally request permission from the administration to hold a demonstration. You have to tell them how many people you’ll have, what you’re protesting, what you’re going to say. You can’t use amplified sound.
After undemocratic student involvement with revising the former policy, the administration–under wraps–released a revised policy, which in some ways was better than the old one, but in some ways was more restrictive.
They limited the number of days you had to wait for a request–down to three, where it was previously 10. They gave us a free-speech zone, but it’s in a very secluded area of campus and has limited hours. Very few people know where it is. It’s not where tour guides take prospective students and parents, and that’s intentional. The administration now reserves the right to prohibit demonstrating when the Board of Trustees are meeting and during other unspecified “campus-wide events.”
WHAT EFFORTS are underway to challenge the new restrictions, and have you won any changes so far?
WE’RE MAKING gains, and the demonstration policy itself is changing. I’m also involved in the effort to essentially abolish the policy. We’re working with Students for Worker Justice, which is organizing to support the long-term needs of workers and to enforce the Jesuit Just Employment Policy, which has a range of conditions that the university must meet for workers, whether or not they have union representation.
That collaboration started when Worker Justice was denied the right to be a registered student organization, which would have given them the ability to file for a demonstration and access funds that students directly pay into. But the administration denied them student organization status. The administration does not want to create a space for students to organize with workers.
The connections continue to unfold. We can talk about free speech connecting to the demand for divestment from the Israeli occupation, workers’ freedom of association, as well as freedom of access to campus resources like the library, which is a condition of the Jesuit Just Employment Policy.
What’s important is how we think of free speech. We often think of it as an individual right to look or act a certain way. But the reality is that free speech is about collective rights. The demonstration policy itself says that the coordinated action of two or more students qualifies as a demonstration.
WHAT IS the relationship between the Student Senate and other groups? In the past, the Student Senate has done some positive things, like pass a divestment resolution.
YES, THEY passed our divestment resolution a total of three times in the past two years. They passed the Jesuit Justice Employment Policy. They passed divestment from fossil fuels. But the Student Senate has turned into this mechanism where students see it as a strategic point, but don’t count on it for actual change. The most central governing body–the University Senate, which includes administrators, faculty and students–sees itself as just an advisory board.
It’s generally understood that if the administration likes what you’re saying–if you’re working for gender-neutral bathrooms, for example–they’ll go for it. But if you ever push legislation that could potentially challenge the profit motive of the university–how they treat people financially, how they impact the neighborhood, how they undercut faculty and workers–then good luck.
There’s no autonomy in university-sponsored governing bodies, especially in the context of Palestine solidarity organizing. Administrators are directly facilitating pro-Israel lobbying in the Student Senate. Last spring, when SJP passed divestment through the Student Senate, Loyola’s president, Father Michael Garanzini, wrote an open letter condemning the resolution and explicitly stated that the Senate has no bearing on Loyola’s financial decisions.
I think this has created an opening for resistance on campus. The repressive actions of the administration legitimize our need to work outside the system in order to fundamentally challenge it. We’re seeing how free speech can be an incredible point of intersection for organizing on campus.
I think it’s about deeper material needs. There’s massive student debt at Loyola. The Loyola police are strengthening their grip on the community and racially profiling students, faculty and workers. Faculty are also shouldering debt, and that’s why they’re afraid of being fired. They’re being paid poverty wages. Then there are workers commuting two hours each way to get here, and they get paid minimum wage.
This isn’t just about what we’re saying, but how what we’re saying can change people’s material conditions in our community.
Transcribed by Georgette Kirkendall