France - Digital Surveillance, Disciplinary procedure

The Sciences Po Saga: Prestigious French University Learns from its Past Mistakes and Drops Undue Investigations

Published on Tue Dec 19 2023 - modified on Thu Dec 21 2023

Between 2021 and 2023, the ELSC received several requests for support from students at prestigious French university Sciences Po, targeted by unfounded allegations of antisemitism and terrorism glorification. In all cases, we were successful in preserving the students’ reputation and position, while ensuring that Sciences Po does not repeat the same mistakes again and upholds freedom of expression.

The saga starts in March 2021, when the president of a student organisation complained to the university administration about alleged cases of antisemitism and racism on campus. The complaint referred to separate events which the complainant considered racist, including: heated exchanges during an online class on Palestinian nationalism and Zionism following a student’s false claim that the pre-1948 Palestinian flag included the Star of David; and a student expressing surprise at the same student organisation’s request to “follow” him on social media after it had rejected his attendance at an event.

The administration promptly opened a preliminary investigation and questioned the students. These hearings took place without providing any preliminary information to the accused students about the complaints lodged against them, the facts that implicated them, or the legal basis for the investigation. The administration also continuously failed to inform the students of the duration, the progress and the potential consequences of the investigation, which put the students in a state of great stress.

Over a year later, in July 2022, the investigators concluded that 3 out of the 5 students had violated the student regulations pertaining to the rules of civility and respect in debate. Importantly, the investigation report regrouped the facts relating to the separate incidents within a single account of the events, thus failing to consider their actions in their individual dimension and presupposing a chain of events that allegedly signalled a prevailing, general climate of intolerance or antisemitism at the university.

In October 2022, the Director of the University requested the opening of a formal disciplinary procedure on the basis that the 3 students had made virulent statements against persons due to their real or supposed Jewish religion or European origin. Shortly after that, the students were invited to submit written observations. The ELSC supported the students in drafting their statements, invoking their right to freedom of expression and highlighting the procedural errors, most notably the consolidation of their cases.

In January 2023, the students were summoned to appear before a disciplinary committee. Following the hearings which the students attended in the company of an ELSC officer, and after almost two years of victimisation, the disciplinary committee ultimately proved them right: no disciplinary sanctions were taken against the students! The decision recalled that the students had a legitimate right to exercise their freedom of expression and had not engaged in any misconduct such as to justify sanctions.

In November 2023, a new round of accusations rattled Sciences Po students. The administration invited two students to a meeting in order to discuss social media posts which had been identified as potentially breaching French criminal law. At the meetings, the university officer assured the students that the principal aim was to hear their version of events and not to take any disciplinary nor legal action. Both students – advised by the ELSC – successfully defended against the accusations and no disciplinary sanctions ensued.

When my university contacted me regarding my pro-Palestinian posts after October 7, I was really afraid about what they could do, considering their pattern of pro-Palestinian censorship. However, ELSC rapidly advised me and helped me prepare my responses as well as meeting with the administration. Their help was essential at providing me with the necessary legal information to face my following interactions with the university […] I thank ELSC for what they did for me and for other students in my case,  trying to be a voice against the ongoing genocide of the Palestinian people.

A Sciences Po student supported by the ELSC

The ELSC notes the progress made in the university’s handling of complaints that systematically target students who express solidarity with the Palestinian people or who simply manifest critical awareness. However, even invitations to such meetings create a chilling effect on students. Universities have a responsibility to protect their students from facing unwarranted threats of disciplinary sanctions and, worse, intimidating threats of criminal prosecution. It is therefore crucial that universities put in place mechanisms that ensure proper preliminary assessments of the good faith and soundness of complaints lodged through their channels to avoid victimising students who legitimately exercise their freedom of expression.

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