Palestine Legal, an independent organization that provides advocacy and litigation to individuals who speak out about Palestinian issues, is pushing Duke to rectify what the organization deems “a pattern of monitoring and policing of student speech,” according to an email from Zoha Khalili, a staff attorney at the organization, to Mary Pat McMahon, vice provost and vice president for student affairs.
Khalili is representing Hadeel Abdelhy, Trinity ‘20, who was contacted three times by the Office of Student Conduct over the 2019-20 academic year for reports made about Facebook and Twitter posts regarding her political and personal beliefs.
In her April 28 email to McMahon, Khalili wrote that the incidents occurred in a way that suggests Duke is sacrificing the “free exchange of ideas” to avoid “external controversy.” These investigations, she argued, had the effect of pressuring Abdelhy to self-police her speech.
“Hadeel has felt pressured to police herself on social media to avoid the time and the emotional energy she has had to spend going to the student conduct office, distracting her focus away from her schoolwork and preparations for graduation,” Khalili wrote in her email to McMahon, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle.
She added that Abdelhy feels like she cannot speak freely, that she constantly has to watch herself and what she is saying so as to not offend anyone, and that she is being singled out and personally targeted.
Clay Adams, associate dean of students, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the OSC receives a wide variety of allegations involving student misconduct. They review all allegations received to “determine if a potential policy violation may have occurred,” and follow their processes to bring the complaint to resolution. He wrote that in some cases, the response may include informal conversations with a member of the OSC team “in hopes of enhancing awareness.”
According to the student conduct website, resolutions may include “mediation, arbitration, alternative/informal resolution or disciplinary action.”
Jeanna McCullers, senior associate dean of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct, wrote in an email to The Chronicle that due to federal student privacy law, she could not comment on or confirm any individual student conduct case, but in general, Duke has a “rigorous student conduct process that focuses on personal responsibility and accountability,” she wrote.
She added that the University encourages honesty, integrity and respect for all community members, as stated in the Duke Community Standard.
“Any student named in a report of a possible violation of university policy is presumed to be not in violation of the community standard unless the student accepts responsibility for the violation, or the disciplinary process makes such a determination,” she wrote.
McMahon declined to comment on any of Abdelhy or Khalili’s allegations. She referred The Chronicle to Michael Schoenfeld, vice president for public affairs and government relations, who wrote in an email that federal student privacy law prohibits the University from disclosing any information about an individual student’s academic or conduct record.
Seeking support from Palestine Legal
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Abdelhy told The Chronicle that she reached out to Palestine Legal April 9, after a third social media post was reported to the OSC, because it was “terrifying” to her how Duke was—whether intentionally or unintentionally—“censoring” jokes and memes. She felt that she alone could not make Duke issue an apology or make a commitment to protect her speech, so she sought the help of Palestine Legal.
Concerned about the level of scrutiny Abdelhy was facing for her social media posts, Khalili told The Chronicle that she took the case because a student being questioned about the content of her posts for “non-disciplinary matters” was “out of the ordinary.” She said that she wanted to draw administrators’ attention to the impact that the incidents had on Abdelhy.
Khalili said that she is especially concerned that Duke’s behavior may have been influenced by a resolution agreement they entered with the federal government and the Zionist Organization of America Dec. 3, 2019.
That settlement resolved a discrimination complaint against Duke that centered on a conference about Gaza, which the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies hosted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2019. The agreement required that Duke issue a statement to “all University students, faculty, and staff” against discrimination, with an emphasis on anti-Semitism.
Khalili wrote in her email to McMahon that the OSC should clarify that the Dec. 3 resolution agreement “is not a directive to censor the speech of Palestinian students and their allies.” She added that the office should be provided with guidance on the appropriate handling of complaints about social media postings and issue an apology to Abdelhy “for what she has been through.”
Chris Lott, deputy general counsel at Duke’s Office of Counsel, replied May 4 on behalf of McMahon confirming he and McMahon had reviewed and understood Khalili and Abdelhy’s concern. In the email, a copy of which was obtained by The Chronicle, Lott wrote that Duke is “committed to encouraging free speech and expression, while at the same time ensuring that it implements fairly its policies, including the policies prohibiting discrimination and harassment.”
“We have balanced these principles in responding to the many reports we have received regarding your client, and will continue to do so for the remainder of the semester,” he added.
Abdelhy wrote in an email to The Chronicle that the response was expected and that she didn’t expect the University to apologize “since they rarely ever do.”
Ten days later, Palestine Legal posted a news release detailing the situation and the organization’s actions on behalf of Abdelhy.
Abdelhy wrote in an email to The Chronicle that she and Palestine Legal are now prioritizing making sure that other groups exist to support pro-Palestine students and activists, noting that this would “go a longer way than a mere statement and apology by the University.”
A string of interactions with the Office of Student Conduct
Abdelhy said that the first time her social media posts were reported to OSC was after she commented on a Nov. 12 Duke Israel Public Affairs Committee Facebook post that read, “We support Israel's right to defend herself against terrorists. We are hoping for a quick recovery for the 39 injured Israelis.”
In her comment, Abdelhy wrote, “The painting of Palestinians as terrorists is an old, tired, and racist trope. At least be more original when dehumanizing them.” She then posted a picture of the group's cover photo at the time—a picture of several DIPAC members—with clown emojis superimposed on their faces, in the same Facebook comment thread. The caption read, “Anyways I guess clowns don’t have originality.”
Abdelhy said Jeanna McCullers, senior associate deans of students and director of the Office of Student Conduct, told her DIPAC reported her for her comments. DIPAC did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Abdelhy received an email Dec. 2, 2019, from McCullers to meet with her to discuss a “report with information” involving Abdelhy, according to a screenshot of the email obtained by The Chronicle. In the email, McCullers added that it is OSC’s practice to “share information with individuals” when they receive a report.
After Abdelhy confirmed the meeting time and asked what the report concerned, McCullers responded that the report regarded “social media communications between [Abdelhy] and a student organization,” according to screenshots of the exchange. She wrote that the office viewed it as a “non-disciplinary matter,” but still wanted to meet, share the details of the report and learn more about Abdelhy’s perspective on the matter.
Abdelhy and Khalili both suspected that the University’s responses to the reports were driven by the resolution agreement Duke submitted to the Department of Education Office for Civil Rights Dec. 3. In Khalili’s email to McMahon, she wrote that the resolution agreement may have encouraged “a chilling level of overzealousness” within OSC.
The agreement resolved a complaint filed by the ZOA which argued that the March 2019 Gaza conference hosted by the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies, was “one-sided and hostile to Israel.” As part of the agreement, the University made several commitments to fight anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination.
Khalili said that there is no evidence that the University’s response was influenced by the decision, but she asserted that it is unlikely to be coincidental.
“The timing seems awfully suspicious to me,” she said. “...It just seemed like it lined up too closely for it to be a coincidence.”
Abdelhy said that when she met with McCullers Dec. 4, she found that the office had a file of screenshots of various political posts from her Facebook and Twitter accounts that were unrelated to the incident which she was called in for. She said that the source of these screenshots—whether they were taken by the DIPAC or the OSC—was unclear, but that their existence was “very disturbing” to her.
In her April 28 email to McMahon, Khalili wrote that although Abdelhy was not subjected to formal discipline, it was “deeply disturbing” that she was called in to explain herself and to learn that her social media was being monitored by administrators. She wrote that Abdelhy felt strange afterward, anxious and uncomfortable walking around campus and to class.
Abdelhy received a second email from McCullers Dec. 18, asking Abdelhy to meet with her and Zoila Airall, associate vice president for student affairs for campus life, according to a screenshot obtained by The Chronicle. McCullers wrote that the office wanted to share the information received and learn more about Abdelhy’s “intentions” regarding one of her tweets. McCullers acknowledged that it “may be an inconvenience given that winter break has started,” but thought it was best for Abdelhy to know about the report prior to returning to campus in January.
That Dec.16 tweet read, “Me before college: confused about my political identity, adopted centrism, ‘we really need to hear both sides.’ After coming to college:” Underneath was a picture of Abdelhy, with a cropped image of the “Miley Cyrus’ blue eyes” meme and a “hand pointing a gun” meme superimposed next to her face, pointing towards the reader.
“You can just google ‘Miley Cyrus gun,’ and you’ll see that people are putting it on celebrities,” Abdelhy said of the meme. “It’s just a way to be ridiculous, but it’s not a meme that’s inciting violence. It’s not meant to be a threat. This is a format of a meme that was going viral on Twitter.”
Khalili wrote in her email to McMahon that Abdelhy having to explain her intentions—in light of the accusation she was making a violent threat—caused Abdelhy “a great deal of emotional distress.”
“It was even more stressful to learn that the report was perceived to reflect a high threat level such that higher ranked administrators had to be involved,” Khalili wrote. “It was terrifying for her to be vilified for a meme.”
Abdelhy said that she received a third email from OSC about a Feb. 11 Twitter post that read, “Today is bully Peter Feaver day.” According to Abdelhy, the tweet was about an upcoming talk with John Bolton—former national security advisor to President Donald Trump—moderated by Peter Feaver, professor of political science and public policy and American Grand Strategy program director.
She received the email, according to a screenshot obtained by The Chronicle, from Airall March 28 informing her that a student reported that she “encouraged students to bully Dr. Feaver.”
“Is that true?,” Airall asked in the email. “Remember commencement is just around the corner.”
Abdelhy replied to Airall that she was confused why someone had brought up the tweet “more than a month” later. According to a screenshot of the email, she wrote that she believes it’s her “free speech to criticize or make fun of someone if [she] disagree[s] with them politically.” She added that she had been “laying low” on Twitter and this was “really annoying.”
Airall declined to comment on the email or OSC’s response to reports related to Abdelhy's social media posts.
The three reports, Abdelhy said, felt “very, very personal.” She felt that people were watching her Twitter account closely, which made her feel like she had to self-censor her political opinions.
“There is definitely also anxiety that started to increase with every time I tweet something about Israel/Palestine and the worry that someone would report my opinion,” she wrote in an email. “I have had to deactivate my Twitter for a few days because the thought that someone is constantly watching what I tweet was worrying me and giving me anxiety.”
Requesting an apology
Prior to receiving Lott’s May 4 response, Khalili said the first thing she would like is for Duke to acknowledge the impact that the incidents have had on Abdelhy and to issue an apology.
Next, she said the University should ensure that it is not feeling pressure from the Dec. 3, 2019, resolution agreement to infringe on students’ rights to free speech. Khalili emphasized that although there is nothing problematic about promising to fight anti-Semitism, the University should understand that fighting anti-Semitism should not be conflated with silencing Palestinian voices on campus.
Abdelhy said the University should not respond to reports in a way that makes students feel intimidated and like they can’t speak out about Palestine and criticize Israel. She said that she would like to see a written statement or commitment from Duke to protect the free speech of Palestinian students and their allies, as a “bare minimum.”
Abdelhy acknowledged in an email that administrators in OSC are doing their jobs, but also alleged that the system is “fundamentally flawed” and prone to abuse, allowing for people to use it to harass students who are exercising their free speech.
“I understand when university officials respond by saying they were merely following procedure,” Abdelhy wrote. “But I think this is my point here, that following the procedure has the unintentional impact of silencing people or making them police themselves. No one should be brought in multiple times to the office because of a bunch of harmless memes or because of their political opinions.”
Adams, the associate dean of students, declined to comment on the current disciplinary system or whether it has been previously prone to abuse.
Khalili wrote in her email to McMahon that the first complaint against Abdelhy for her Facebook comment was in line with a “long history of efforts by pro-Israel groups to use disciplinary mechanisms to censor criticism of Israel and to punish people like Hadeel, who are Palestinian and/or support freedom and equality for Palestinians.”
In an email to The Chronicle, she cited other cases that Palestine Legal had taken in the past—such as one at Stanford in 2018 and one at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in 2015—to support this statement.
Khalili said that it is important for administrators to realize the “impact of their actions,” and it is not completely harmless for the University to respond to complaints. She said it is important for the University to think about what it means for a student to be called into the office and the intimidating impact that it might have.
She added that the University should establish clear guidelines for how they handle social media complaints and that Abdelhy should not have been called in to explain each report.
“I think in this situation, in every instance where they had called Hadeel in for questioning or emailed her to ask about her posting, they could have determined that there was no threat that she was posing,” she said. “And I think that it's important for them to take those steps and to actually reach that conclusion without creating a situation where a student feels intimidated and feels like they're being surveilled by the administration.”
Adams declined to comment on the office’s current policies in handling reports related to social media posts.