Columbia Law Review Is Back Online After Students Threatened Work Stoppage Over Palestine Censorship

After the Columbia Law Review’s board of directors responded to the publication of an article about Palestine by taking the prestigious journal completely offline, the students who run CLR voted on Wednesday to reject an offer in a letter from the directors to reinstate the website.

The Columbia Law School students who run CLR were considering a proposal to append a note to the Palestine article disclaiming what the directors, in an unsigned letter to students, described as “secrecy and deviation from the Review’s usual processes.” In the letter proposing the text, the board of directors said it wanted to see the journal put back online.

The student editors rejected the deal for a disclaimer by a 20-5 vote, according to a student and documentation reviewed by The Intercept.

“To the extent that they’re trying to censor Rabea, that simply won’t happen — that simply hasn’t happened and can’t.”

“I think that this whole year, and particularly this last semester, has been about students recognizing, stepping into their power,” said Sohum Pal, a CLR articles editor. “And I’m very glad that the law students at the law review are doing the same.”

When the article on Palestine, titled “Toward Nakba as a Legal Concept,” was published on Monday morning, Rabea Eghbariah became the first Palestinian legal scholar to publish in CLR. But within hours of publication, after months of revisions on the lengthy piece, the board of directors took the journal’s website completely offline, saying they had concerns about the process.

“Powerful legal scholarship cannot be silenced,” said Pal. “It’s already been circulating. It’s already gotten far more views or reads than the average law review article. And, yeah, to the extent that they’re trying to censor Rabea, that simply won’t happen — that simply hasn’t happened and can’t.”

The Intercept was not immediately able to reach members or representatives of the CLR board of directors, which oversees the independent, nonprofit student-led publication, for comment about the vote or the letter.

After voting, the students sent an email to board member Gillian Metzger, a Columbia law professor, saying that if the board continues to hinder the publication of Eghbariah’s piece, the staff of CLR will stop all work on the journal. The email, which was reviewed by The Intercept, said the students would continue to work on the Bluebook, a legal citation guide maintained and updated by four schools’ law reviews, including CLR. (Metzger did not immediately respond to a request for comment.)

On Thursday afternoon, the board of directors reinstated the website, including Eghbariah’s article. A link at the bottom of the CLR homepage went to a statement from the board about Eghbariah’s article.

Eghbariah told The Intercept he viewed the board of directors’ actions as an example of a “Palestine exception” to free speech and academic freedom.

“The CLR Board of Directors has yet to contact me or officially explain to me their decision to take down the website, let alone their proposal to add a disclaimer to the article,” Eghbariah said, in a statement received after publication. “The fact that the Board could not cite any substantive deficiencies with the piece but rather resorted to allegations about internal processes, which were rejected by CLR editors, tells me all I need to know. This is not only a Palestine exception in action but also a disingenuous attempt to manufacture controversy that undermines and deflects attention from the content of the article.”

The website takedown was the latest in a battle on Columbia’s campus — and on campuses across the country — over free speech and the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. Protests erupted on many of the campuses over Israel’s war on Gaza, which has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians, including at least 15,000 children. At Columbia and other universities, demonstrators were met with brutal police violence.

Disputes over the Gaza war more broadly have spilled into many aspects of university life, with pro-Palestine students often facing consequences ranging from censure, expulsion, and even censorship — including at well-respected academic journals. In November, the Harvard Law Review voted to kill an online article, also by Eghbariah, that had gone through the full editing process.

On Tuesday, the day after The Intercept published its story on the directors’ initial suppression of Eghbariah’s piece, student editors said they received a letter sent on behalf of the board of directors that offered what it said was “the best way to further the many important values at stake.” The proposal in the board letter required that the following statement be attached to Eghbariah’s piece:

“Toward Nakba as a Legal Concept was not subject to the usual processes of review and editing at the Law Review. It was solicited outside of the usual articles selection process and edited and substantiated by a limited number of student editors. Contrary to ordinary practice, it was not made available for all student editors to read. As a result, a number of student editors were unaware of the piece and did not have the usual opportunity to provide input on its content prior to its publication.”

Some of the student editors who worked on Eghbariah’s piece took exception to the directors’ demand. “The letter communicates the Board’s continued stance to usurp and interfere with the student-run editorial process,” Erika Lopez, one of the editors, told The Intercept on Wednesday. “The Board’s seemingly final decision to include a disclaimer is offensive and unprecedented.”

“The letter communicates the Board’s continued stance to usurp and interfere with the student-run editorial process.”

The letter also suggested additional measures, including taking the “article” label away from piece, since it wasn’t facilitated by the articles committee, and soliciting a response to it. Students had previously told The Intercept that CLR’s student administrative board made a unanimous procedural vote to create a committee for shepherding a piece on Palestine; a separate vote on whether or not to solicit a piece and create an opt-in committee to edit it also passed overwhelmingly. 

The Wednesday letter, delivered to students unsigned and not on letterhead, said the board of directors had been “informed that this piece had not been subject to the usual processes of review or selection for articles at the Law Review, and in particular that a number of student editors had been unaware of its existence until two days before.” 

“The secrecy that surrounded this article’s editing and substantiation review is unacceptable,” the directors’ letter said. “It is also unprecedented, in that every piece is either worked on by, or available on request to, all student editors during the editing process.”

The letter also raised questions about the “adequacy of the editing and substantiation processes” in light of the purported secrecy.

“We elected to use a different internal communications policy for the piece; we did not use a different editing process,” one of the editors, who requested anonymity to avoid reprisals, told The Intercept on Wednesday. “Any implication that the internal communications policy reflected a deficient editing process is both untrue and insulting to the piece, the author, and our editorial staff.”

On Monday, student editors told The Intercept that the draft was stored on a server available to the opt-in editors of the article because of fears over leaks. The editors who spoke with The Intercept said they had never heard of a previous request by the board to distribute an article draft to the full membership of CLR.

In a statement to The Intercept on Monday, CLR’s board of directors, a group of eminent alumni and Columbia professors, said that it had requested a delay in the publication of the article so its content could be shared with the full membership of the journal, some 100 students. The delay was granted. 

When word of the article began to leak beyond the CLR community, however, the students responsible for producing it published the full May volume of the journal online. In response, the directors shut down the entire law review’s website. The directors, in their statement to The Intercept on Monday, said, “In order to provide time for the Law Review to determine how to proceed, we have temporarily suspended its website.”

After their vote, some of the CLR students declared a victory.

“I just feel really grateful and proud of my colleagues for taking a meaningful and principled stance tonight,” said Pal, the articles editor. “I tend to be pretty cautious, but I think I also try to be really optimistic. And one thing that we’ve been saying to each other, during this last day, has been that, like, optimism requires a little grain of delusion, and I think that it really feels very meaningful right now, to be deluded enough to think that you can win and then to do it.”

Update: June 6, 2024, 2:02 p.m. ET
This story has been updated to include the board’s reinstatement of the website without a PDF link for Rabea Eghbariah’s article; the students’ claim, made in an email, that they intended to keep working on the legal Bluebook; as well as a comment from Eghbariah received after publication.

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