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Northwestern students face criminal charges for pro-Palestinian newspaper parody

Northwestern students face criminal charges for pro-Palestinian newspaper parody

The students, charged under an obscure anti-KKK law, face up to a year in jail.

Reporting | Media

This story was co-published with The Intercept.

Students at Northwestern University, in the Chicago suburbs, woke up on October 25 to face an unexpected allegation. “Northwestern complicit in genocide of Palestinians,” declared the school’s venerable student newspaper, the Daily Northwestern, in a front-page story.

The students, however, weren’t really looking at the Daily Northwestern. Instead, they had found the Northwestern Daily, a parody newspaper attacking the school’s stance on Israel’s war on the Gaza Strip.

The mock front page featured fake quotes from school officials, accusations of Israeli war crimes, and a fake ad for Birthright Israel — the travel abroad program that sends young American Jews to Israel — with the tagline “One man’s home is another man’s former home!” Overnight, someone had pinned the mock papers on bulletin boards, spread them on desks in lecture halls, and even wrapped the false front pages around roughly 300 copies of the Daily Northwestern itself.

The stunt quickly sparked a furor among Israel’s supporters online. One writer, at the conservative National Review, said the fake newspaper included an antisemitic “blood libel.” The university itself said the spoof “included images and language about Israel that many in our community found offensive.”

The parent company of the school paper, Students Publishing Company, or SPC, announced that it had “engaged law enforcement to investigate and find those responsible.” The results of the inquiry are just now coming to light.

Following the investigation, local prosecutors brought charges against two students for theft of advertising services. The little-known statute appears to only exist in Illinois and California, where it was originally passed to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from distributing recruitment materials in newspapers. The statute makes it illegal to insert an “unauthorized advertisement in a newspaper or periodical.” The students, both of whom are Black, now face up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

“I have never seen anyone charged with theft of advertising,” said Elaine Odeh, a lawyer who formerly supervised public defenders in Cook County, Illinois, which includes Evanston, where Northwestern is based.

Jon Yates, a spokesperson for Northwestern, told The Intercept and Responsible Statecraft, “The Students Publishing Company, independent publisher of The Daily Northwestern, pursued a criminal complaint related to the publication of the ‘fake Daily’ this fall. As required by law, University Police pursued a criminal investigation, which led to a citation for violating state law that was issued to multiple students.” (SPC is independent from the university, though several professors and students sit on its board of directors.)

Some student staffers working for the actual Daily Northwestern are angry that charges are going forward, according to a former Daily Northwestern editor and current student, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation from school officials. “It’s very clear that this is a discriminatory action,” the student said. The Daily Northwestern’s own editorial board wrote Monday that its publisher should formally request that the case be dropped, calling the investigation “unnecessary and harmful.” (Disclosure: I am a graduate of Northwestern’s journalism school but was never involved with the Daily Northwestern.)

The Class A misdemeanor charges, the highest level short of a felony, represent an escalation in the battle over free speech and protest on college campuses as the war in Gaza drags into its fifth month. Pro-Palestine activism on campus has faced a severe crackdown due to what Israel’s backers say is antisemitism and hate speech, with school administrations working closely with police.

At American University, school officials enlisted the FBI to help investigate incidents in which students defaced pro-Israel posters. Several colleges have banned or suspended chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine, a popular pro-Palestine group, including at Columbia University, which subsequently beefed up its police presence. And several dozen students at the University of Michigan are facing charges for trespassing after refusing police orders to leave a building.

Graham Piro of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a nonprofit specializing in free speech advocacy, said, “It’s always a concern when colleges and universities appear to be disproportionately targeting one form of political speech.”

“Pursue it as a criminal act”

At Northwestern, the criminal charges struck many as a serious escalation. One student, who requested anonymity to prevent backlash from family in Israel, said he found the parody “offensive” but felt the charges went too far.

Stephanie Kollmann, the policy director of a Northwestern’s law school clinic focused on criminal justice, questioned why SPC chose to go directly to the police rather than issuing a cease-and-desist letter to the students. Kollmann said colleges and affiliated institutions often seek to keep incidents out of the courts despite potential criminal conduct. The fact that charges were brought in this case means that SPC, university police, and the state’s attorney’s office all used their discretion to opt for the harshest response.

"The idea that multiple people in a chain of reaction to this incident repeatedly decided to not use any of the other tools of reproval available to them,” said Kollmann, “but rather chose to pursue it as a criminal act is frankly remarkable."

Many at the university are pushing back on the charges. Over 70 student organizations — including high-profile groups like Mayfest Productions, which sponsors an annual music festival on campus — have pledged to not speak with the Daily Northwestern until the charges are dropped. “Even students who have just been generally quiet on what's happening with Israel and Palestine, I've been seeing them speak out for the first time regarding this,” said a student organizer, who requested anonymity due to fears of retaliation from the university.

More than 5,000 people have signed a student-led petition calling on SPC to drop the charges and alleging that the incident represents “targeted over-policing of Black students.”

Students and lawyers expressed surprise that prosecutors chose to bring the hammer down using such a little-known law, especially one originally designed to target white supremacist groups. Chicago police have only ever arrested one person under the statute, according to the city’s arrest database.

The decision of whether to prosecute the charges now rests solely with the local prosecutor, the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, which did not respond to a request for comment. SPC, however, can join students in asking prosecutors to drop the case, which could influence their decision-making going forward.

SPC’s board of directors, for its part, denies that political motivations had anything to do with its decision to report the incident to police. “This is not an issue of free speech or parody,” the board said in a statement. “[J]ust as you cannot take over the airwaves of a TV station or the website of a publication, you also cannot disrupt the distribution of a student newspaper.”

The board includes several prominent journalists and media executives, including longtime ESPN personality J.A. Adande, CNN legal director Steve Kiehl, and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert Samuels.

The war in Gaza has created a litany of challenges for Northwestern. President Michael Schill initially drew backlash when, shortly after October 7, he said the school would not take a position on the conflict. Schill issued a second statement just a day later, in which he condemned Hamas’s attacks as “barbaric acts” that are “clearly antithetical to Northwestern’s values.”

Some faculty and students have loudly condemned the school, saying it's showed a bias against pro-Palestinian activists. However, pro-Israel advocates claim Schill has failed to protect Jewish students. Alums for Campus Fairness dropped a cool $600,000 on ads attacking Schill, including a 30-second spot that ran during Northwestern’s bowl game. The ad alleged that student groups “resoundingly support” Hamas and called on the school to “take decisive action against individuals violating university policy.”

Evgeny Stolyarov, a Jewish student at Northwestern who supports a ceasefire in Gaza, said that the charges will have a “chilling effect on speech” related to the war.

“If this was done about literally any other topic, there would not be this amount of blowback,” Stolyarov said. “It also, in some ways, reinvigorates the student body,” he added. “Hopefully this ends up bringing activists on campus together.”

A photo of the parody cover of the Daily Northwestern mocking Northwestern University's stances on Israel's war in Gaza. (Obtained by Responsible Statecraft and The Intercept)

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