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Northwestern U: Threatened With Prison For Distributing Parody Paper

Students at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, produced a parody edition of the school’s paper, the Daily Northwestern, to call out the school’s stance on Israel’s war on Gaza. Some folks wrapped the fake front pages around some 300 copies of the actual school paper.

This exercise in culture jamming got two students brought up on a charge that could have landed them in prison for a year. After widespread protest on campus, and national coverage in the Intercept (2/5/24) and Responsible Statecraft (2/5/24), charges were dropped against the students.

After the appearance of the look-alike Northwestern Daily—bearing the headline “Northwestern Complicit in Genocide of Palestinians”—the parent company of the school paper, Students Publishing Company, announced that it was engaging “law enforcement to investigate and find those responsible.”

According to reporting from the Intercept (2/5/24) and Responsible Statecraft (2/5/24), local prosecutors then brought charges against two students. They invoked a little-known statute, originally passed to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from distributing recruitment materials in newspapers, that makes it illegal to insert an “unauthorized advertisement in a newspaper or periodical.” The students, both of whom are Black, faced up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.

A representative of Northwestern’s law school clinic noted that SPC chose to go directly to the police rather than issuing a cease-and-desist letter to the students, indicating that they, 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, but rather chose to pursue it as a criminal act,” said Stephanie Kollmann, “is frankly remarkable.”

Reaction to the criminalization of a press-based protest was sharp. Over 70 student organizations pledged not to speak with the school’s official paper until the charges were dropped, and more than 7,000 people signed a student-led petition for the same.

The Intercept quoted Evgeny Stolyarov, a Jewish Northwestern student, warning about the chilling effect, but adding that the incident also “reinvigorates the student body. Hopefully this ends up bringing activists on campus together.”

Responding to the widespread condemnation, the SPC board issued an apology, saying that the prosecutions were “unintended consequences” of their reporting the wrapping of their paper to campus police, and later signing complaints against the individuals alleged to have taken part in the protest (Patch, 2/7/24). The board said it had formally asked the “Cook County state’s attorney’s office to pursue a resolution to this matter that results in nothing punitive or permanent.”

Prosecutors subsequently dismissed the charges, saying that Northwestern was capable of dealing with the issue “in a manner that is both appropriate to the educational context and respectful of students’ rights.”

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