Northwestern University Students Charged with Criminal Offenses over Satirical Anti-Israel Publication

Two Northwestern University students are facing criminal charges after they placed a fake front page on the school’s student-run newspaper that charged the university with being “complicit in genocide of Palestinians.”

The students were charged under a little-known Illinois statute that criminalizes inserting an “unauthorized advertisement in a newspaper or periodical.” As a result, the pair face up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine each.

On October 25, 2023, two unnamed students placed a mock front page on around 300 copies of the school’s newspaper, The Daily Northwestern. The students created a page of a parody newspaper, called The Northwestern Daily, with a front-page headline reading “Northwestern complicit in genocide of Palestinians.” Additional stories had headlines like “Out of Meal Swipes” and “NU wants to Air-Drop a photo.” The page also featured a mock advertisement for Birthright Israel, a program that provides free trips to Israel for young Jewish adults, reading “One man’s home is another man’s former home!”

The incident sparked criticism among pro-Israel advocates. Fox News contributor Guy Benson called the mock page “straight-up literal terrorist propaganda….It includes an ad suggesting the real student newspaper is sponsored by the you-know-who’s.” 

According to The Intercept, Students Publishing Company, The Daily Northwestern‘s parent company, announced that it had “engaged law enforcement to investigate and find those responsible.”

As a result, the students were ultimately charged with “theft of advertising services.” The crime stems from a law that, according to The Intercept, only exists in California and Illinois and was originally passed to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from inserting leaflets inside newspapers.

“I have never seen anyone charged with theft of advertising,” one lawyer who previously supervised Evanston-area public defenders told The Intercept.

The pair’s charges have sparked controversy—including from staff at The Daily Northwestern. The student paper’s editorial board wrote on Monday, “While the students’ alleged actions may violate Illinois law, we believe SPC’s decision to engage the criminal justice system during this investigation was unnecessary and harmful.”

The Students Publishing Company board of directors has resisted claims that the charges sparked by their choice to involve law enforcement are inappropriate. 

“This act of vandalism interfered with the rights of student journalists to publish and distribute their work,” they wrote in a Monday statement. “Just 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.”