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Amani Al-Khatahtbeh Headshot

An Inside Look at the Fight for Freedom of Speech in College Newspapers

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The words you're about to read were fully censored by The Daily Targum, Rutgers University's daily newspaper, even though they were all fact-checked by Targum staff and are true to my personal experiences working there. Because all of these things happened privately, it was said that writing about them would break the rule against publishing content that "makes The Daily Targum Publishing Company look bad."

Well, that's kind of the point.

This was supposed to be my traditional goodbye column before my term as the opinions editor came to an end last week, but it was censored by my own workplace, from the very section of which I was the editor. The new Targum editorial staff is fully aware and supportive of this now being published.

Before I became the opinions editor and made the Targum's editorial office my permanent residence, I spent my high school days and college life building bridges between different cultural and religious communities.

Before heading to Rutgers, I was awarded the Daniel Pearl Scholarship from my hometown's synagogue for my work on increasing tolerance. I founded my blog, MuslimGirl.net's first student chapter at Rutgers -- the first of many developing sister chapters across several states -- with the mission of "promoting interfaith dialogue through the spirit of sisterhood." When I planned our first interfaith event during my sophomore year, I invited Hillel's Senior Associate Director Rabbi Esther Reed to speak on behalf of Rutgers' Jewish community because I was proud to see a woman blazing a trail in her faith. I became a regular in religious, cultural and social justice organizations that I felt would cultivate a more tolerant campus environment.

Thus, when I was approached during my junior year to run for the Targum's opinions editor position in the hopes of making it as inclusive and reflective of all campus opinions as possible, I was ecstatic and I won the position.

I was the only Arab on the 145th editorial board. I wear a scarf on my head. I believe it was in part because of these things and the polarized political environment at Rutgers that I was placed under a microscope as soon as I took up my position as opinions editor. There is strong evidence to support the claim. My superiors, and especially interested outside parties, were on top of me for any hint of showing a "bias" -- and remarkably enough, this interest was only shown when it concerned the topic of Israel. I think all of my colleagues will agree that none of them had to experience the same scrutiny.

My very first day on the job was met with controversy. A seemingly preemptive campaign was launched to prove that our newspaper was "biased against Israel" before I even had a chance to do my job, which I almost lost during my very first month for putting a letter from a Hillel member through the very same editing process that we put every letter we receive. That would be the first of many threats that my job came under throughout my term, each time as a result of publishing content that was not strictly in favor of Israel. The campaign displayed all the pro-Israel letters that came to my desk, comparing their original form to their edited version after publication in the Targum. It attempted to propagandize all the edits, attributed fully to me, as serving ulterior political motives -- when, really, the letters were either cut down in order to fit on the page or some parts didn't make it through our collective fact-checking process, a professional burden shared across several desks.

I gave pro-Israel letters the very same treatment I gave any other letters that came to my desk, yet that was not good enough for my critics or superiors.

Last semester, after Rutgers Students for Justice in Palestine passed out mock eviction notices on campus to raise awareness of Palestinian home demolitions, the Targum's Board of Trustees -- on which Rabbi Reed's mother is a voting member -- was in direct communication with Hillel over how they wanted the editorial content in my section to be published. They wanted me to publish a pro-Israel letter at the time of their choosing to benefit from increased readership -- an advantage that no other on- or off-campus organization receives. I was threatened with termination if I did not oblige the overbearing influence they were exerting over my editorial decisions.

In response, almost our entire editorial staff co-signed a letter denouncing this lack of journalistic integrity in our newspaper and planned to have it published in my section, only to be censored by the Board of Trustees, who said that they didn't want us to "air our dirty laundry."

The Board of Trustees' and pro-Israel organizations' deflective accusations against me that my editorial decisions are "biased" are unfounded. To the contrary, I have gone out of my way to publish opinions I disagree with. At the beginning of this semester, I received a commentary written by a Rutgers student with anti-Semitic undertones, questioning Hillel's funding and criticizing "the Jewish nature on campus" that I, as a Muslim Arab-American, was offended by, and that clashed with the interfaith work to which I have dedicated my college years. I selected that commentary for publication anyway.

I did so firstly because I refuse to censor any opinions, even ones that I may personally disagree with, and secondly because I knew the same type of poor reasoning expressed in the commentary was also applied to the treatment of other minority communities. I hoped that publishing it would result in a positive dialogue about tolerance of all religious and cultural groups on campus.

But, instead, members of Hillel exploited the opportunity not only to attack me personally, but also to establish an even larger control over the student newspaper.

The Board of Trustees privately accommodated Hillel's public display of bullying when Hillel's Executive Director Andrew Getraer responded to the Targum's arbitrary apology, in a letter that the board had no problem publishing. In it, Hillel demanded what amounts to its control over the Targum and its staff members. You didn't read it here first -- you can see the bullying and intimidation exerted over our staff in Getraer's own words in his Jan. 29 commentary.

In the Board of Trustees' private response to Hillel, which Hillel publicized in a press release on its website, it is stated that the board will be taking the unprecedented and "unusual step of requiring the editor-in-chief to submit all letters and commentary [on Israel/Palestine] to the board for approval before they can be published." This is the unjustifiable -- and hidden -- way that the Board is responding to an anti-Semitic commentary written by a Rutgers student, which questioned the funding of Hillel and had absolutely nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Board of Trustees is not only catering to the sole requests of Hillel, but is also exercising an overarching and seemingly limitless power over editorial content -- positioning itself for an unchecked exercise of censorship. Not only has the board been a complete enigma to the editorial staff and public and criticized for its lack of transparency, but information about its membership, capabilities and the limits of its editorial discretion are convoluted and not outlined anywhere on the Targum website.

When I approached those more knowledgeable than I about the misconduct I was witnessing, people were angry. Rutgers faculty members were outraged and willing to take action against what one professor said was a journalistic "crisis." Toby Jones, who teaches modern Middle Eastern history and directs the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at Rutgers, was outraged by both the terms of political debate and the apparent intimidation and threat to free speech against the student newspaper. In addition, he said he "was also disappointed, given the claims of intimidation and the censorship attested to by some of the Targum's editorial staff, that the newspaper's leadership of what is supposed to be an independent outlet for aspiring journalists and that should resist encroachment on these things, allowed it all to happen." Legal teams said that going public about what I was experiencing would be a powerful move. Advocacy groups said that they would fully support me in moving forward.

All of these things were aligned in my favor -- the favor of integrity, of honesty, of transparency. My finger was on the trigger.

And I flinched.

I didn't pull it. I stayed silent. I let the moment pass. Because, as ashamed as I am to admit it, I was scared.

Political organizations on campus with immeasurable power are terrifying. Unlike comfortably tenured professors, we students are vulnerable. We're left totally and completely exposed in a media arena where we are unarmed while Goliaths have entire nationally-funded arsenals at their hands. When my job was threatened because I did not want to change the publication schedule according to Hillel's demand, in my head, there was no way I could fight against our well-connected Board of Trustees and other university bullies without getting obliterated.

I guess my experience echoes that of countless students across the country. Liz Jackson, an attorney who advises students on defending their speech rights, explained, "Unfortunately, Amani's story of intimidation, false accusations of bias, and censorship is common. Palestine Solidarity Legal Support formed in response to students like her from every corner of the country reporting that they could not speak honestly about Palestine on campus without facing legal and personal attacks. Legal bullying, intimidation and official censorship are escalating on campuses as critical discussion of Israeli policy becomes more common. The chilling effect can be devastating. Some students stand up to the pressure and some decide they'd rather stay quiet."

I will always have to live with the decision not to publicize the discriminatory treatment I received and the infringement on free speech that I witnessed. But, instead of being angry with myself for it, I am instead angry at the unjust framework that forced me into that position in the first place.

In an interview I did with NJTV about former men's basketball coach Mike Rice's exposed abuse and the surrounding controversy that hit our newspaper last year, I said that "especially when you take into consideration that a college campus is a microcosm of society as a whole, we should be focusing on the issues that cause these types of events to happen in the first place." The issue of stifling free speech on college campuses, especially when it comes to criticisms of Israel, plagues universities far beyond Rutgers and truly reflects the nature of our country's politics. Just as Israel-aligned organizations are suffocating the dialogue on Israel down here on campus, so too are they doing the same up there in our governmental institutions.

One way that this is happening is by politicizing the word "anti-Semitism" to silence criticism of Israel -- which has everything to do with political actions and nothing to do with religion. Even United States Secretary of State John Kerry, after merely acknowledging the existence of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement against Israel, was criticized as being "anti-Semitic," which prompted Ambassador Susan Rice to come to his defense against the "unfounded and unacceptable" attacks.

Using the label of "anti-Semitism" as a scare tactic to cancel political discourse of Israel not only cripples free speech and critical thought, but also undermines real, serious and painful experiences of anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in our society that deserve the utmost condemnation.

I don't know what will happen after this is published. I know that it's very likely such organizations will prove me right with another onslaught of attacks, or they could give us all a pleasant surprise. If this column had been published in the Targum as I originally planned, I would have expected the Board of Trustees to "retract" (read: retroactively censor) it within days.

While I was dealing with the thick of all this pressure two weeks ago, Rabbi Reed approached me to ask what I plan on doing after I graduate this semester. My only plan is to continue fighting for freedom of speech and marginalized narratives in our country. The personal attacks I've had to face prove that there is still much work to be done when it comes to increasing tolerance in our society, and the politics I've witnessed behind the scenes reveal that our First Amendment rights are more embattled than ever.

If anything, my experience at the Targum -- and the unprompted and hostile reaction to an Arab woman's seat at the table -- has taught me that the pen really is mightier than the sword. Thankfully, I'm walking out of there with enough ink in my pen to write another day.