6. Canary Mission Blacklists Pro Palestinian Activists, Chilling Free Speech Rights
Before the "critical race theory" moral panic fueled a nationwide uprising to censor discussions of race in education, there was an opposite moral panic decrying "cancel culture" stifling certain people — especially in education. But even at the peak of the "cancel culture" panic, perhaps the most canceled people anywhere in America — pro-Palestinian activists and sympathizers — got virtually no attention. Even though a well-funded, secretly run blacklist website, known as Canary Mission, explicitly targeted thousands of individuals — overwhelmingly students — with dossiers expressly intended to ruin their careers before they even began, and which “have been used in interrogations by Israeli security officials,” according to the Forward, a Jewish publication. They’ve also been used by the FBI, as reported by The Intercept.
The website, established in 2015, “seeks to publicly discredit critics of Israel as ‘terrorists’ and ‘anti-Semites,’ Project Censored noted, but its careless style of accusation has caused a backlash, even among pro-Israeli Jews. “While some of those listed on the site are prominent activists, others are students who attended a single event, or even student government representatives suspected of voting for resolutions that are critical of Israel,” the Forward reported. More than that, it reported three examples when Canary Mission was apparently retaliating against critics, including Jews.
But by far, its main targets are Palestinians, particularly activists involved with the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions or BDS movement that works to peacefully pressure Israel — similarly to South Africa in the 1980s — to obey international law and respect Palestinians’ human rights. As the Intercept reported in 2018, “While Canary Mission promotes itself as a group working against anti-Semitism, the blacklist’s effective goal is to clamp down on growing support for Palestine in the United States by intimidating and tarnishing Palestinian rights advocates with the brush of bigotry.”
While the FBI told the Intercept that it “only investigates activity which may constitute a federal crime or pose a threat to national security,” this didn’t match up with its actions. “If the FBI was concerned about criminal activity among the student activists, its agents made no indication of that in the interviews,” the Intercept reported. “They did, however, ask questions that echoed far-right propaganda about unproven links between pro-Palestine activist groups and militant groups.”
The list itself has had a chilling effect on First Amendment rights, another Intercept story reported. “A survey of over 60 people profiled on Canary Mission, conducted by the group Against Canary Mission, found that 43 percent of respondents said they toned down their activism because of the blacklist, while 42 percent said they suffered acute anxiety from being placed on the website.” Some have even received death threats.
“For many otherwise unknown activists, a Canary Mission profile is their most visible online presence,” Project Censored reported, “‘It’s the first thing that comes up when you Google my name, the claim that I’m a terrorist supporter and an extremist,’ one former activist on Palestinian issues told the Intercept.”
“Beyond Canary Mission,” Projected Censored noted, “a variety of pro-Israel organizations that seek to suppress pro-Palestinian activism have pursued litigation against chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine,” as reported in The Nation by Lexi McMenamin. A highlighted example at UCLA demanded the release of the names of speakers at a national conference, whose identities had been protected “in order to prevent them from being put on no-fly lists, potentially denied entry to other countries, or contacted by the FBI over their organizing work.” In March 2021 a California judge rejected that demand, noting that disclosure of their names “would violate their rights to freedom of association, anonymous speech, and privacy.”
Project Censored also cited a May 2021 federal court ruling that the state of Georgia cannot compel groups or individuals who contract with public entities to disavow support for the BDS movement against Israel, finding that the state’s law “places an unconstitutional incidental burden on speech.” Georgia is one of 35 states with similar anti-BDS laws or executive orders.
“Heightened violence in Israel/Palestine in May 2021 has focused attention on powerful pro-Israel media biases in US news coverage, but Canary Mission and legal efforts to suppress pro-Palestinian activism have nonetheless received minimal corporate news coverage,” Project Censored summarized, citing a handful of exceptions, a New York Times and a Washington Post opinion, plus two New York Times articles “dating back to 2018, [that] made passing mention of Canary Mission, as a ‘shadowy organization,’” But, Project Censored concluded, “Aside from this coverage, major establishment news outlets have provided no substantive reports on the role played by Canary Mission and other pro-Israel organizations in stifling the First Amendment rights of pro-Palestinian activists.”