San Francisco State Students Appeal Retaliation Decision Against Know Your Rights Fair Organizers

PHOTO: WIKI/WEBBI1987

PHOTO: WIKI/WEBBI1987

On August 4, 2017, students appealed a San Francisco State University (SFSU) finding that they retaliated and engaged in viewpoint discrimination against San Francisco Hillel (SF Hillel) when they declined to invite the organization to a Know Your Rights (KYR) Fair.

The University dismissed the original charge that SF Hillel was excluded from the Fair based on religious discrimination, but found Fair organizers responsible for two additional charges: (1) “retaliation,” which was added four days before the scheduled conclusion of the investigation, and (2) “viewpoint discrimination,” a charge which the students were never informed of.

Although Hillel calls itself the Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, the organization is widely criticized by Jewish students and others for its discriminatory conduct, including bylaws that exclude students who disagree about Israel, its censorship and targeting of students who advocate for Palestinian rights, and its partnerships with right-wing, anti-Palestinian organizations.

The students appealed the decision on several grounds, including: that their due process rights were violated because they were not informed of the charges and evidence against them, and the decision makers were influenced by outside pressure; that investigators discarded relevant evidence in concluding that the organizers retaliated against SF Hillel; and that the viewpoint discrimination finding was outside the investigators’ purview, and was not supported by the evidence.

SF Hillel’s alleged exclusion from the KYR Fair is a major claim in a lawsuit brought by the rightwing “Lawfare Project” against SFSU administrators, staff, and Arab Muslim Ethnicities and Diasporas (AMED) studies founding director Dr. Rabab Abdulhadi. The lawsuit, filed during the course of the SFSU investigation into the Fair, names the same administrators overseeing the investigation. The students’ appeal highlights the conflict of interest this creates, as administrators are pressured to defend themselves against allegations of discrimination by blaming students.

The appeal demands that CSU overturn SFSU’s decision, or at the very least hire an independent investigator to conduct a fair investigation.

The full story is below.

2017 Know Your Rights Fair

In March 2017, San Francisco Hillel filed a baseless complaint of religious discrimination against the KYR Fair organizing committee. The purpose of the KYR Fair was to support vulnerable student groups in the wake of President Trump’s policies targeting Arab, Muslim, LGBTQ+ and undocumented communities. Committee members included Latinx, Arab and Muslim staff, students, and professors. Event organizers contacted student groups and community organizations such as the ACLU, immigrant rights and trans rights groups to speak on panels and table.

SF Hillel contacted the organizing committee and requested a table. Though it was not on the invitation list, SF Hillel claimed to have been invited. The committee declined SF Hillel’s request given the limited number of tables and Hillel’s record of bullying students advocating for racial justice and equality. Hundreds of students, including members of SF Hillel, attended the February 28 event. The next day SF Hillel accused the fair organizing committee of religious discrimination.

After a five-month factual investigation, SFSU found no evidence of religious discrimination, despite the pressure campaign from Israel lobby organizations to investigate and punish the committee, including a series of articles critiquing SFSU President Leslie Wong’s leadership for failing to crack down on criticism of Israel, as well as a lawsuit against the administrators overseeing the investigation. The university did, however, find that the committee had retaliated against SF Hillel for participating in an earlier investigation in 2016 and that the committee discriminated based on SF Hillel’s viewpoint.

Palestine Legal has represented the student members of the committee throughout the investigation and appeal.

Background: Hillel’s 2016 False Accusations Resulted in Death Threats to Students

After receiving SF Hillel’s request to table, members of the committee discussed SF Hillel’s prior actions, in particular its response to an incident in 2016, when SF Hillel had hosted a talk by Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. The talk was vigorously protested by SFSU students who oppose the mayor’s policies of ethnic cleansing. In response to the protest, SF Hillel posted press releases and online statements falsely accusing the group of students of aggression, hostility, antisemitism, and advocating hatred and violence. Hillel’s accusations resulted in death threats, rape threats, online profiling and in-person harassment of numerous SFSU students, all of whom were Arabs, Muslims or other students of color.

Members of SF Hillel also filed complaints with campus administrators and were interviewed as witnesses in an investigation of the Barkat protest. The impartial investigation cleared students of the false accusations, finding that the protest posed no safety threats, and that it targeted the mayor for his policy positions, not other individuals for their Jewish identity.

Organizers of the KYR Fair were aware of SF Hillel’s role in launching a public smear campaign against students. But the majority of the KYR Fair organizers had no knowledge of SF Hillel’s participation in any prior university investigation.

The Retaliation Finding Distorts SFSU’s Policy

SFSU prohibits retaliation against individuals for filing complaints or acting as witnesses in an investigation. This is standard policy in anti-discrimination law, meant to encourage campus members to be forthcoming with complaints about discrimination and harassment. The 2017 investigation into the KYR Fair, however, distorted the policy.

First, administrators made no distinction between SF Hillel’s false public accusations against students (of which KYR Fair organizers were directly aware) and SF Hillel’s participation as witnesses in a campus investigation (of which KYR Fair organizers were largely not aware). The investigator hastily concluded that “the conduct co‐exists and is intertwined.” Second, having wrongly equated the public smear campaign (and the severe consequences it had for students) with the confidential campus investigation, administrators then treated the committee’s discussion of the effects of SF Hillel’s smear campaign on students as evidence of “retaliation.”

The student organizers’ appeal to California State University (CSU) Chancellor’s Office emphasizes that it is an overbroad misapplication of the retaliation policy to apply it to people who were not even aware of Hillel’s “participation” in a previous university investigation.

The appeal also underscores that by treating Hillel’s public false statements as “protected” under the retaliation policy, SFSU has insulated Hillel from community accountability for false and inflammatory public statements that caused harm to other students.

The Viewpoint Discrimination Finding Distorts the Facts About Hillel

SFSU also found that student organizers engaged in viewpoint discrimination in denying Hillel a table at the Fair.

Students were never informed of this charge against them. The university itself admitted that the issue “falls outside the scope of [the] complaint process.” Specifically, the university found that the committee denied SF Hillel a table because of its “viewpoints concerning Israeli/Palestinian issues.” In their appeal, the student organizers emphasized the difference between their objections to SF Hillel’s conduct and discrimination against SF Hillel for its views. Investigators had disregarded this testimony in their findings.

During the investigation, students provided information about Hillel International’s Israel Guidelines, which prohibit affiliates including SF Hillel from hosting speakers who support boycotts for Palestinian rights. Investigators ignored the obstacle this exclusionary requirement poses for those who interact with SF Hillel. Investigators also ignored evidence of other harmful targeting that Hillel chapters have engaged in against advocates for Palestinian rights, including calling on law enforcement to punish their speech activities. The investigators omitted from evidence the well-documented fact that Hillel International enforces its exclusionary guidelines with the threat of litigation against affiliates who depart from the guidelines, and against individuals who don’t confirm to its views.

Instead, investigators viewed the KYR Fair organizers’ concern about Hillel’s guidelines as a “direct attack on Hillel’s political views.” The investigators characterized the Hillel Israel Guidelines as “[describing] its support for and vision of Israel.” The KYR Fair organizers were primarily concerned with Hillel’s Israel Guidelines not because of Hillel’s vision of Israel, but because of Hillel’s conduct in enforcing its vision against other students in a damaging and discriminatory manner.

Violations of Due Process

The university’s investigation process denied students the opportunity to fully respond to the allegations against them.

Though required by their own procedures to notify students of the allegations against them at the beginning of an investigation, SFSU never notified the students of the viewpoint discrimination charge, and it only added the charge of retaliation five months into the investigation, just four business days before the university’s deadline for completing the investigation. This left the student organizers with little time to respond to the new charge. The error left the administrators themselves even less time to evaluate the evidence the students provided.

The appeal also described the evidence students would have submitted had they been given a reasonable opportunity to defend themselves against the additional charges, such as copies of SF Hillel’s public statements and first-hand testimony about the consequences of the smear campaign.

During the six-month disciplinary process, SFSU and CSU also created numerous bureaucratic obstacles for the students. They were required to file the appeal within 10 business days based only on a brief summary of the investigation and findings, and without access to information about the investigator’s reasoning. They received the full investigation report nearly a month later, and were given only five business days to review the 210-page report and attachments and raise objections. When they requested additional time, based on the length of the report and their availability, administrators could not “assure that this documentation will be reviewed.”