San Francisco State University is at the heart of a multipronged legal effort by Israel advocacy organizations seeking to silence students and faculty who stand for Palestinian rights.Read More
Palestine Legal and CCR are advocating on behalf of Fordham students who were denied permission to start Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at the university and then disciplined for protesting the decision. On December 22, 2016, more than a year after Fordham students had applied to start an SJP club, Fordham's Dean of Students informed them that their club application was denied. The dean explained in his decision that he believed an SJP group would create "polarization" on campus and "run contrary to the mission and values" embraced at Fordham.
Palestine Legal and CCR filed a lawsuit on behalf of the students against Fordham on April 26, 2017. The case is being brought as a special proceeding under Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules. Students are seeking a judgment compelling Fordham to officially recognize SJP and provide it the same rights enjoyed by all other clubs at Fordham.
The penalization by Fordham of student activists for Palestinian rights comes in the context of coordinated nationwide attacks on student organizing. For more information about other efforts to suppress protected activities in support of Palestinian human rights, including on college campuses, see CCR and Palestine Legal’s report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.
Below is the timeline of events.
Timeline of Events (Last Updated November 3, 2017)
A Year of Bureaucratic Hurdles
Nov. 19, 2015: Four Fordham students apply to start a SJP group at the Lincoln Center campus. SJP’s proposed mission is “to build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation, and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people.” All four of these original executive board applicants were students of color, three were Muslim, and one, Ahmad Awad, who hoped to be president, was Palestinian-American. The students expected Fordham would approve their group within a few weeks, as they understood was the norm.
Over the course of a year, Ahmad and the other students face a series of bureaucratic hurdles and delays. Administrators expressed concerns that SJP’s presence would “stir up controversy,” and request that the Jewish Student Organization be notified about SJP, to the students’ confusion.
Apr. 6, 2016: After months of delays, Ahmad writes a Fordham administrator, saying:
We've effectively missed a whole semester of being involved on campus, and would appreciate approval soon so we can begin hosting meetings for fellow Fordham students who are interested to learn about what SJP is.
We are very motivated to make this club happen. It is an issue very dear to our hearts, especially as I, Ahmad, am Palestinian myself.
Fordham responds the last week of class, asks the students to meet, and for boilerplate edits to be made to their constitution, which the students make. The academic year concludes without SJP being approved.
Sept. 7 2016: Students come back to school, eager to get their club started, since several of them are now seniors. They inquire about the club’s approval status, and are told their “paperwork (and status of club)” are getting “figured out.” The students are asked to meet again with Fordham administrators, who also ask to review their proposed constitution again.
Oct. 5, 2016: Ahmad and two other students interested in joining SJP meet with Dean of Students Keith Eldredge and Dorothy Wenzel, Director of the Office of Student Leadership and Community. At the meeting, Eldredge and Wenzel express concern that SJP’s presence would “stir up controversy.” Dr. Wenzel says she spoke to several Jewish faculty members and requested their opinion about whether SJP should be established at Fordham. Fordham continues to delay, asking for more clarification on the group’s constitution.
Nov. 17, 2016: Fordham’s student government votes to approve SJP as a club at Fordham. Dean of Students Keith Eldredge writes the students, stating that he “now need[s] to review the request before it’s finalized.”
Dec. 2, 2016: Fordham Professor Glenn Hendler, who was to be SJP’s faculty advisor, meets with Dean Eldredge at his request. At the meeting, Eldredge remarks that he was having trouble finding information on SJP “that was neutral or objective.” The following week Eldredge writes the students, and says he’d like to meet with them again before making a final decision on SJP’s club status.
Dec. 7, 2016: Students again meet with Eldredge and another administrator. At the meeting, the administrators ask the students:
· What does BDS mean to you?
· Does BDS mean the dissolution of the state of Israel?
· Why use the term apartheid?
· Does SJP support the work of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), J Street and Seeds for Peace?
The students explain that BDS is a nonviolent tactic to pressure Israel to respect Palestinian rights, express confusion over what Eldredge means by “dissolution of the state of Israel,” and say they would like to work with JVP.
Fordham Bans SJP, Without Appeal
Dec. 22, 2016: Eldredge emails the students, stating, “I have decided to deny the request to form a club known as Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University.” He states that SJP’s presence would lead to “polarization,” and that he “cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.” The email also states that “the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue.”
Dec. 23, 2016: In two follow-up emails, a student asks Eldredge for clarification about the appeals process. He also asks:
What specifically do you mean by "conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the university?" We do not understand how voicing opposition to certain policies of a government--as anti-apartheid activists did in the case of South Africa and as the College Republicans and College Democrats at Rose Hill do all the time--conflicts with the mission and values of the university.
Jan. 6, 2017: Dean Eldredge informs the students that “there is no appeal of my decision.”
Civil Rights Groups Protest Violation of Free Speech Principles
Jan. 17 2017: Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) write Fordham, explaining that the university’s censorship violates free speech principles and the university’s academic freedom guarantees, and raises concerns under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The letter states:
Dean Eldredge’s reasoning that polarizing student groups cannot be allowed to operate seems to be an exceptional rule applied only to controversy on Israel-Palestine. Fordham has approved several clubs which arguably contribute to “polarization.” For example, advancing LGBTQ+ rights, women’s equality and the right of Muslims to be in this country, are all deeply polarizing issues; even more so given the recent election.
Later that evening, Palestine Legal receives hate mail directed at the Fordham students, stating:
“HOLD ONTO YOUR HIJABS BECAUSE WE’RE ON SJP LIKE A FLEET OF IDF DRONES OVER GAZA . . . AM YISRAIL CHAI! HAIL TRUMP’
Jan. 20, 2017: Fordham Vice President Jeffrey L. Gray responds to Pal Legal and CCR, offering a different justification for the SJP ban. He says the decision to deny SJP club status “was based on the fact that chapters of this organization have engaged in behavior on other college campuses that would violate this University’s student code of conduct.”
Jan. 23, 2017: Students decide to protest Eldredge's decision, and organize a peaceful rally. In advance of the rally, a student with the group meets Eldredge, who designates her as a liaison for the rally. Eldredge gives no indication that the rally is not approved – either in the meeting before the rally, or at the rally, where he was present.
Jan. 26, 2017: Palestine Legal and CCR write Gray, explaining that his January 20 letter “misconstrues the facts, misunderstands the law, and ignores Fordham’s contractual obligations to respect students’ freedom of expression, as promised in various University policies.” Palestine Legal’s letter also notes the Supreme Court has held that the denial of student group status based on the actions of a national group violates associational rights under the First Amendment.
The letter also notes that students interested in starting SJP at Fordham had repeatedly declared their complete independence from National SJP and SJP chapters on other campuses, that NSJP’s own website states that SJPs are autonomous, and that it is not clear what “disruptive” activity NSJP – or any other SJP chapter – has engaged in that would violate Fordham’s code of conduct, as Fordham’s letter provided no specifics.
Fordham Retaliates Against Student for Protesting SJP Ban
Feb. 1, 2017: Dean Eldredge sends Fordham senior Sapphira Lurie a notice charging her with violating the school's demonstration policy for the January 23rd rally protesting his decision to ban SJP. Sapphira is shocked; at no time had Fordham expressed that the rally was unsanctioned.
Feb. 3, 2017: Sapphira emails Dean Eldredge asking what specific part of the demonstration policy Fordham is alleging she violated, if she’s allowed to bring an advisor or witness with her to the hearing.
Eldredge says that she organized a protest that “is considered a demonstration event and you did not meet with me to coordinate the planned event.” He also says: "You and I are the only ones present for the hearing. You are not entitled to have anyone with you during the hearing with me, although you can certainly have someone accompany you and remain outside of my office." In a separate email, Dean Eldredge referenced "the Student Conduct System in the student handbook" as authority to support this position. There is no language forbidding the presence of an attorney, faculty advisor, or another third party at a hearing.
Feb. 15, 2017: In advance of the hearing, Palestine Legal writes Vice President Gray, requesting a neutral decisionmaker, and raising due process concerns:
Due process requires a neutral, impartial decisionmaker. Not only did the rally at issue express disapproval of the Office for Student Involvement and Dean Eldredge's actions; Dean Eldredge lodged the complaint, brought the charges against Ms. Lurie, is a witness, will determine if Ms. Lurie violated university policy and what her punishment should be -- all in a closed-door hearing alone with Ms. Lurie.
This hearing lacks all semblance of fairness and neutrality and raises serious concerns. Accordingly, I request the hearing be conducted by a neutral decisionmaker, who is neither a party, nor has a vested interested in the outcome of this process. I also request that Ms. Lurie be allowed to bring a representative of her choice to the hearing.
Gray responds, stating that Sapphira “has an obligation to attend” the hearing and that “[s]he can choose to attend (without advisors or representatives), or she can choose not to attend. Failure to attend the scheduled hearing may result in further disciplinary charges related to failure to comply.”
Student Forced into Closed-door Hearing, Leaves in Protest
Feb. 22, 2017: Sapphira goes to the scheduled hearing at Dean Eldredge’s office. She tells him she doesn’t feel comfortable meeting alone with him, and reiterates her request to bring a lawyer, her faculty advisor or a friend into the room. Eldredge denies her requests. She then asks if the door can remain open during her hearing. Eldredge says no. She asks if the white noise machine, which is on the floor outside his office, can be turned off. Eldredge says no. Sapphira walks out in protest, as a small crowd of professors gather in support of her.
Feb. 23, 2017: Eldredge sends Sapphira a disciplinary reprimand letter stating that she violated the school's demonstration policy. The letter states, “[A]s there appears to be some confusion about the Demonstration Policy, please be advised that written approval of a request for a demonstration is sent to the organizer/liaison following a scheduled meeting with the Dean of Students or designee required under the policy.” He sanctions her with a warning.
Fordham Sanctions Student Trying to Start SJP, Without Appeal
Mar. 1, 2017: Palestine Legal and CCR write Vice President Gray, requesting an appeal. The letter states:
[I]t is clear that Ms. Lurie should not be disciplined because written approval was not given for a January 23rd rally, when Fordham’s written Demonstration Policy contains no requirement that approval of a protest must be in writing. Indeed, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge designated a student liaison for the rally and gave no indication that it was not approved – either in the meeting before the rally, or at the rally, where he was present.
Gray responds shortly after, stating that there is no appeal.
Students Sue Fordham
Apr. 26, 2017: Students filed a lawsuit against the school over its refusal to grant club status to SJP Represented by Palestine Legal, CCR, and cooperating counsel Alan Levine, the students argue that the denial is “viewpoint discrimination” in violation of Fordham’s policies regarding free expression.
June 5, 2017: Fordham files a Motion to Dismiss the students’ lawsuit. The motion misconstrues the lawsuit’s claims by inaccurately portraying it as a First Amendment challenge. Fordham claims that the college's concern was that SJP would be a polarizing presence on its campus, but acknowledges having invited to the campus such self-evidently polarizing figures as Newt Gingrich and Karl Rove. In an affidavit accompanying the motion to dismiss, Dean Eldredge confirmed that his decision to deny SJP official club status was based at least in part on unfounded allegations from groups openly hostile to Palestinian rights advocacy, about unaffiliated SJP groups on other campuses. Eldredge himself cautions in his affidavit that he is “not commenting on the accuracy” of the very media reports he relied on.
July 7, 2017: Petitioners file a Reply to Fordham’s Motion to Dismiss. CCR and Palestine Legal argue that by denying SJP official club status on the basis of its political message, Fordham acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and in bad faith, violating its own policies guaranteeing free expression. As Fordham’s June filing revealed, Fordham’s decision relied almost entirely on materials provided by individuals openly hostile to SJP’s views, including its support for BDS. Fordham officials disregarded evidence that belied Fordham’s concerns about SJP, and readily available sources that would have refuted detractors’ allegations and attested to SJP’s potential to positively contribute to campus discourse. The filing also asserts that Fordham acted in bad faith by violating its own procedures for granting clubs official recognition when, at an advanced stage in the process, it replaced the club registration rules with new rules that had never previously been distributed or applied, and which gave the Dean the power to veto the student government’s approval of clubs.
Nov. 2, 2017: Petitioners file an order to show cause why a preliminary injunction should not be issued against the university directing it to recognize Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as an official club.
Legal Documents for Awad, et. al. v. Fordham University
Petition to Challenge SJP Ban
Fordham’s Motion to Dismiss:
- Memo of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss
- Affidavit of Dorothy Wenzel, Director of Office of Student Involvement
- Affidavit of Keith Eldredge, Dean of Student
Petitioners’ Opposition to Fordham’s Motion to Dismiss:
- Memo of Law in Opposition to Motion to Dismiss
- Second Affidavit of Ahmad Awad, Petitioner
- Second Affidavit of Sapphira Lurie, Petitioner
- Affidavit of Ben Lorber, Jewish Voice for Peace Campus Coordinator
- Affidavit of Glenn Hendler, Fordham University Professor
- Affidavit of Irène Lucia, National Students for Justice in Palestine Member
- Reply Memo of Law in Support of Motion to Dismiss
Petitioners' Preliminary Injunction:
- Petitioners' Memorandum of Law in Support of Motion for Preliminary Injunction and Expedited Discovery
- Affirmation of Alan Levine
- Affidavit of Sofia Dadap, Petitioner
Letters from Palestine Legal and CCR
Palestine Legal and CCR letter to Fordham challenging ban on SJP, (Jan. 17, 2017)
Palestine Legal and CCR second letter to Fordham, explaining why its defense of its decision to ban SJP is wrong, (Jan. 26, 2017)
Letters from Other Community, Civil Rights, and Legal Groups
Friends of Sabeel North America letter to Fordham University in support of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine (undated)
US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel Open Letter to Fordham University on Repression of Student Speech (undated)
Middle East Studies Association letter to Dean Eldredge (Jan. 23, 2017)
The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) call on Fordham to reverse its rejection of SJP (Jan. 25, 2017)
Jewish Voice for Peace letter to Fordham University (Jan. 25, 2017)
FIRE and NCAC second letter to Fordham explaining why its reasoning is wrong, (Jan. 30, 2017)
Catholic clergy and professors letter to Fordham University (Mar. 28, 2017)
Pro-Palestinian Group Banned on Political Grounds, Inside Higher Ed (Jan. 18, 2017)
Fordham University prohibits Students for Justice in Palestine, Electronic Intifada (Jan. 18, 2017)
Students Protest SJP Veto, Fordham Observer (Jan. 23, 2017)
Fordham flunks a free speech test, New York Daily News (Jan. 23, 2017)
Fordham ban of Palestine group contradicts free speech, Jesuit values, National Catholic Reporter (Feb. 9, 2017)
Campus Wars, Mondoweiss (Feb. 25, 2017)
Fordham University Employs Bizarre Tactics To Curb Student Activism, MintPress News (Feb. 27, 2017)
In September 2016, UC Berkeley suspended a course, titled, “Palestine: a Settler Colonial Analysis,” a week after it began, after Israel advocacy organizations and an Israeli government minister complained that the class was antisemitic. Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks' office justified the suspension by erroneously stating the facilitator failed to follow procedures, and by citing concerns that the course “espoused a single political viewpoint and appeared to offer a forum for political organizing.”
After an outcry, the university reinstated the course. But UC Berkeley never accounted for the blatant violations of academic freedom and free speech.
Berkeley’s suspension of an academic course on Palestine stands in sharp contrast to the university’s defense of free speech for white supremacist visitors like Milo Yiannopolous and Ben Shapiro. The contrast provides a stark illustration of the “Palestine exception” to free speech.
The Course, "Palestine: A Settler Colonial Inquiry"
Paul Hadweh, a Palestinian-American and UC Berkeley senior majoring in Peace and Conflict Studies, spent eight months preparing to facilitate the student-led course, which set out to examine Palestinian history through the framework of settler colonialism. Hadweh designed the course in close consultation with his faculty sponsor, and followed all procedural requirements. The course was approved by Hadweh’s sponsor, the Ethnic Studies Department, and the faculty body charged with overseeing academic curriculum. The class met for the first time on September 6, 2016, and twenty-six students enrolled.
The syllabus included material from both Palestinian and Israeli scholars like Edward Said, Saree Makdisi, Eyal Weizman, and Ilan Pappe. The course description emphasized, “we will explore the possibilities of a decolonized Palestine, one in which justice is realized for all its peoples and equality is not only espoused, but practiced.”
The enrolled students included a diverse group, self-described as “Christians, Muslims, and Jews; we are white, Black, Latin@, Asian, North American indigenous, Middle Eastern, and more; we study Peace and Conflict Studies, Ethnic Studies and Middle Eastern Studies, Media Studies, Economics and Engineering.”
The accusation that the course would only tolerate a single viewpoint was false, as explained by the enrolled students: “We the students collaboratively designed and established community agreements to ensure that we would engage with course content and each other in a mature and respectful manner. Any and all participants were welcome to attend the course, irrespective of background or preconceived perspectives on the subject matter.”
Suspension Without Warning
Executive Dean of the College of Letters and Science Carla Hesse suspended the course on September 13, 2016, three weeks after the semester started and one week after the course began. Hesse made the decision without consulting the course facilitator, the faculty advisor, or the department. To support its decision, the university cited concerns that the course was one-sided, that it was a vehicle for political mobilization, and that Hadweh failed to follow proper procedures.
The university publicly announced its decision less than 30 minutes after informing the faculty advisor and department chair that the course was suspended. Administrators made no contact with Hadweh to discuss their concerns about the course or give him an opportunity to respond before publicly alleging that he failed to follow proper procedures and that his course was inappropriate for the university setting.
Nor did the university reach out to Hadweh to discuss how he may protect himself and stay focused on his studies while facing scrutiny in the international media.
Hadweh learned his course was in jeopardy when a friend alerted him on the morning of the suspension that he was in the Israeli media. This was only several hours before the university suspended it. That same day he began to receive a barrage of harassment emails and contacts from reporters.
Blatant Academic Freedom Violations
As Palestine Legal pointed out in multiple legal letters, the university’s reasoning for the suspension (that the course was politically one-sided) violated First Amendment protections and the university’s academic freedom policies. The procedural justification that “the facilitator for the course in question did not comply with policies and procedures” was also erroneous. No policies or procedures were cited to support this claim, and the university later conceded it was an error.
Palestine Legal demanded immediate reinstatement and an apology to the students. The suspension also caused an outcry among academic freedom advocates, faculty associations, the Berkeley Academic Senate, alumni, and students who also demanded the reinstatement of the course.
Pressure from Israel Advocacy Organizations
The suspension followed heavy pressure from Israel advocacy organizations and the Israeli government. Israeli news media claimed the course offered “practical tips for how to drive Jews out of Israel.” Israel Channel Ten also reported that Israeli Minister Erdan and the Association of University Heads had been trying covertly to prevent the course from taking place. Headlines in the American pro-Israel press claimed, “UC Berkeley Offers Class in Erasing Jews From Israel,” and “New Course At Berkeley University: How To Get Rid Of Israel.” The director of UC Berkeley Hillel wrote, "This course seems to be a matter of political indoctrination in the classroom and is a violation of the newly adopted principles by the U.C. regents on intolerance."
The Israel advocacy group AMCHA Initiative, along with 42 other Israel advocacy organizations, issued a public letter and commenced a letter-writing campaign to Chancellor Dirks about Hadweh’s class on September 13, claiming that it violated Regent’s Policy by allowing a classroom to be used for “political indoctrination” and “as an instrument for the advance of partisan interest.” AMCHA’s media statement called the course, a “classic example of antisemitic anti-Zionism.” The group Students Supporting Israel likened UC Berkeley to a “Hamas terror academy.”
Internal communications released to Palestine Legal through a public records request show UC Berkeley officials scrambling to respond to a high volume of email messages from pro-Israel alumni and donors claiming the course was antisemitic.
Student Facilitator Smeared in the Media
Following the sudden suspension, Hadweh was thrust into an international media storm amidst efforts to reinstate the course, and defend his name from false accusations. The controversy was covered in Israeli, Arab, European, national, and local media outlets. Hadweh was depicted falsely throughout the coverage as a student who violated university policies and attempted to indoctrinate his peers with antisemitic thinking. The university made no statements in his defense.
Reinstatement Without Remedy
On September 19, Dean Hesse announced that she was reinstating the course. The enrolled students met on Tuesday September 20, but Mr. Hadweh was unable to engage his students in the planned discussion of the course material because of questions about the university’s suspension of the course and its reinstatement. They fell two weeks behind on the course syllabus as a result of the suspension.
On Tuesday September 20, the Academic Senate released a statement condemning the university’s suspension of the course as a major infringement of academic freedom policies, and demanding that the university retract and apologize for false statements accusing Hadweh of failing to follow university procedures. The university issued no known response.
Palestine Legal wrote again on October 18th, 2016, because the university had taken no action after the reinstatement to remedy the harms to Hadweh or to remedy injuries to the free speech environment. The letter reiterated: “The absence of a valid justification for suspending the course, combined with the absence of similar scrutiny applied to any other [student-led “DeCal”] course, and the ample evidence of an international pressure campaign on the university to restrict Palestinian perspectives, all point to the conclusion that the university suspended the course in response to controversy over the perceived political viewpoints in the syllabus. This is a violation of the University’s obligation to uphold academic freedom and free speech under the California and U.S. Constitutions.” The university did not reply.
In November, Dean Carla Hesse who was directly responsible for the course suspension wrote to Hadweh to “offer our apology for the public misstatement made regarding your DeCal course” citing “confusion.” Hesse wrote, “We regret stating that you had not followed the appropriate procedures, when in fact you had.” She did not apologize for, or acknowledge, the violations of free speech and academic freedom, or the personal consequences on Hadweh. The university took no known further action on the case.
Consequences to Student Facilitator
For the weeks that followed the reinstatement, Mr. Hadweh was forced to devote himself full time to defending his reputation and responding to high interest from international and local media outlets. He fell irreparably behind in an intensive Hebrew language course, which he eventually had to drop. Hadweh lost sleep, had trouble concentrating, and was consumed with the anxiety of potential consequences to his future and his family.
In December 2016, following the suspension, the Israeli government denied Hadweh a permit to cross from the West Bank to Jerusalem for Christmas. The church applied on Hadweh's behalf, as it has in previous years successfully. This was the first time his permit was denied.
Hadweh, explained, “The university threw me under the bus, and publicly blamed me, without ever even contacting me. It seems that because I’m Palestinian studying Palestine, I’m guilty until proven innocent. To defend the course, we had to mobilize an international outcry of scholars and students to stand up for academic freedom. This never should have happened.”
Letters from Palestine Legal to University of California
Palestine Legal letter to UC Berkeley challenging the suspension (Sep. 16, 2016)
Palestine Legal letter to UC Berkeley demanding remedies after the course reinstatement (Oct. 18, 2016)
Palestine Legal and other civil rights organizations letter to University of California warning of repeated First Amendment violations (Nov. 21, 2016)
Letters from Students, Professors, and Associations
Open Letter to the UC Berkeley Administration Regarding Academic Freedom From Every Student of Ethnic Studies 198 (Sep. 15, 2016)
Middle East Studies Association Letter to Chancellor Dirks, (Sep. 16, 2016)
California Scholars for Academic Freedom, “Letter to Chancellor Dirks and Dean Hesse Re Cancelled Palestine class at UC Berkeley,” (Sep. 16, 2016)
Berkeley Bans a Palestine Class, Academe Blog (Sep. 15, 2016)
UC Berkeley’s ban on Palestine course ‘McCarthyist’, Al Jazeera (Sep. 18, 2016)
Berkeley’s Choice To Nix Palestinian Course Disgusts Me as a Jewish Alum, The Forward (Sep. 18, 2016)
UC Berkeley Suspends Class on Colonialism in Palestine, Chicago Monitor (Sep. 19, 2016)
UC Berkeley reinstates Palestine course, but tried to change content, Electronic Intifada (Sep. 20, 2016)
Why A Controversial Palestinian History Class At Berkeley Was Canceled, Then Reinstated, Newsweek (Oct. 5, 2016)
When students of color at Loyola University Chicago (LUC) organized a November 12, 2015 demonstration in solidarity with racial justice protests at the University of Missouri, over 700 students, faculty, and staff attended. Demonstration organizers did not fully comply with LUC’s draconian demonstration policy – full compliance would have precluded participation in a national day of solidarity with Mizzou.
But despite promises from senior administration officials that no student would be disciplined, LUC charged three organizers – all black students – with violating the demonstration policy. The students faced suspension. All three students were also members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) at LUC, and Palestine Legal staff attorney Rahul Saksena acted as their adviser during their disciplinary hearing.
On December 8, LUC’s Interim President announced a moratorium on the school’s demonstration policy.
In January 2016, Palestine Legal and the NLG-Chicago wrote to LUC’s interim president, raising three demands: 1) end the draconian provision of the demonstration policy, including the requirement that students register demonstrations with the University; 2) adopt stronger due process measures during the student disciplinary process; and 3) apologize to SJP for unfair and selective enforcement of the demonstration policy in 2015. LUC responded to Palestine Legal with a standard letter (dated Jan. 19, 2016) reiterating its commitment to “fostering a vibrant and productive dialogue about important social issues regardless of viewpoint.”
In March, LUC revised the school’s demonstration policy. Students will no longer need to obtain approval to demonstrate.
In the Fall 2015, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace members at the University of Chicago faced harassment on campus and online. Much of the harassment targeted students based on their perceived sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity, including:
- On October 14, as part of the International Day of Action on University Campuses for Palestine, SJP put up posters at the University of Chicago in recognition of recent Palestinian victims of Israeli violence. Many posters were torn down or vandalized with Islamophobic and anti-Arab messages, including “stop venerating terror” and “TERRORIST.”
- On October 19, offensive posters using the SJP and University of Chicago logos were posted on campus. The posters replaced “Students for Justice in Palestine” with “Stabbing Jews for Peace.” SJP reported both incidents to Associate Dean Inabinet via email on Oct 20.
- On October 22, a fake Facebook user named “Rachel Corrie” posted harassing and intimidating comments about an SJP member on SJP’s Facebook page. The posts included homophobic, disparaging comments about the student’s sexual orientation, and threatened to expose sexually explicit photos of the student. One comment, for example, threatened to post flyers on campus with “graphic nude photos of [redacted] he’s been sharing on [gay mobile phone app] grindr.” Another comment stated, “I think most queers would agree that power bottom [redacted] needs to stop pinkwashing palestinian brutality against palestinian homosexuals, oh and stabbing jews too.” Members of SJP reported these Facebook posts to the Associate Dean Inabinet via email on October 22.
- On November 2 and 3, a University of Chicago student who identifies as non-binary and queer, received threatening transphobic and homophobic Facebook messages from the same “Rachel Corrie” referenced above, including “when are you going to get your boobies taken off?” and “i’m going to have lots of fun with you and your family.” The student is a member of Jewish Voice for Peace – UChicago and had posted publicly on Facebook in support of Palestinian human rights. The student reported these messages to the Administration via e-mail on November 3.
- On November 6, a Facebook user created a fake account using the name and photo of an SJP member. The fake account made several offensive, harassing, and intimidating comments on SJP Chicago’s Facebook page. The comments included disparaging statements about the student’s sexual orientation, and attributed to the student statements that could be construed as support for terrorism and anti-Semitism. In one post, for example, the fake profile commented, “I would love to join, but I’m more interested in murdering some jews, er… I mean zionists.” Another comment stated, “…How can I get arrested, I want to fulfill a prison rape fantasy, dying for some big black cock.” The student reported these Facebook comments to Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen via e-mail on November 6.
- On November 14, a Facebook user created a fake account using the name and profile photograph of a Palestinian student at the University of Chicago, who is also a member of SJP. The imposter account left a series of harassing, threatening, sexual, and misogynistic comments on SJP’s Facebook page, including “you don’t have to rape me, i’ll make you touch my genitals.” The Palestinian student reported these comments to Dean of Students Michele Rasmussen and other administrators via email on November 16.
Each time students reported incidents to administrators, the responses expressed sympathy and referred the student(s) to Title IX coordinator. These responses were insufficient.
On November 19, Palestine Legal sent a letter to the University. The letter called on the University to investigate who was behind the harassment and issue a public statement affirming the right to speak out in support of Palestine. The University responded to Palestine Legal’s letter, stating that they had investigated and were unable to identify the sources of online harassment. But the University failed to address the students’ other demands, including publicly affirming and protecting the rights of students to speak out in favor of Palestinian human rights.
Nearly a year later, in October 2016, a number of defamatory, hateful posters made by the David Horowitz Freedom Center were found around campus targeting students due to their support for Palestinian rights. That year, students were also profiled on blacklisting site Canary Mission. Palestine Legal again sent a legal letter to administrators documenting the incidents and demanding that the university take immediate action to support the targeted students.
Palestine Legal continued to work with University of Chicago students throughout 2016 and 2017 to build pressure on the university to take action. In the summer of 2017, the University announced it was considering action to support students targeted by Horowitz and Canary Mission.
On April 4, 2016, St. Louis University student Christopher Winston attended a campus event entitled “Israel: First Responders to World Crisis.” During the question-and-answer portion of the event, Mr. Winston asked questions critical of Israeli ambulance service policies towards Palestinians. His questions were met with hostility by the event hosts, who at one point threatened to call campus security to remove Mr. Winston, the only black person in the room. In response, Mr. Winston said, “[t]hank you, your Zionist fascism is on full display today” as he left the event.
On May 11 an SLU administrator informed Mr. Winston that he had been found to engage in a “bias related incident.” Not once did the university consult Mr. Winston or give him the opportunity to state his side of the story. Mr. Winston was also found to have violated university policy prohibiting “disruptive behavior” due to the “manner in which he presented himself” at the April 4 event.
On May 23, Palestine Legal wrote to the president of St. Louis University to express outrage over the school’s decision to discipline Mr. Winston for simply expressing his political viewpoints at a student-organized event. Mr. Winston appealed the case, stating that he was not provided an opportunity to refute the allegations. In a June 9 letter, the University’s appeal board upheld the sanctions.
- Palestine Legal letter to SLU
- Video of Mr. Winston’s questioning at the event
- Electronic Intifada article: “Black student censured in St. Louis for challenging Israeli spin”
- Alternet article: “African American student accused of ‘Bias Incident’ by St. Louis University for Condemning Israeli Human Rights Abuses”
After a five-month long investigation, Boston University’s (BU) Equal Opportunity Office found that students who had been ejected from a January 2016 BU Hillel event on “combatting BDS” should not have been removed, and had done nothing disruptive.
Nine students, seven of whom were students of color, were ejected from the “All Students, All Israel Think Tank” event on January 28, 2016. When the students asked why they weren’t allowed to attend the event, campus police told them “you’re not welcome” and threatened them with criminal trespass. Three of the nine ejected students are of Palestinian origin, six are Muslim, and seven were members of SJP.
In its determination letter, the Equal Opportunity Office stated that the event “should have been open to all BU students.” It noted that a non-Hillel affiliate asked campus police to eject the students based on a vague assumption that they would be disruptive. While the Office determined that there was not sufficient evidence to conclude the students’ exclusion was due to discriminatory motives, it did recommend “appropriate management of future events at Hillel House so that Boston University students are not treated disrespectfully, or put in a position to conclude that they are being targeted because of national origin, color, religion, or any other protected characteristic.”
Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and the National Lawyers Guild (NLG) Massachusetts Chapter wrote Boston University in May 2016 demanding that the university apologize to the nine students who were removed from the BU Hillel event and issue a statement to the campus community affirming that all students are welcome at open campus events, including Palestinian-American students, Muslim students and students active with Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The letter, written on behalf of BU students Marlene Kalb, Ibraheem Samirah and Negin Taleb notes:
It is clear, as reflected by comments from the police officer, that these students were removed from the event because Boston University Hillel complained about their presence, based on assumptions relating to the students’ national origins and religions or because they disagree with their viewpoints supporting Palestinian rights.
The letter also states:
Fearful of being arrested, Ms. Kalb, Mr. Samirah, Ms. Taleb and their two remaining friends exited the room, under police escort. The experience left Ms. Kalb, Mr. Samirah and Ms. Taleb feeling humiliated, scared and like outsiders on their own campus. Ms. Samirah felt like he didn’t belong on BU’s campus, and that he wasn’t allowed to be part of a discussion because he was Palestinian, that his identity was viewed by BU and BU Hillel “as a negative” and that BU and BU Hillel “made me feel bad as a Palestinian.”
Letter from Palestine Legal, CCR and the NLG-Massachusetts Chapter to Boston University
A video of the incident can be found here.
Former Federal Prosecutor and Former Federal Judge Vindicate Students for Justice in Palestine
After a six-month investigation, an independent task force concluded that alleged instances of anti-Semitism on CUNY's campuses were not attributable to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
The investigation, conducted by Paul Shechtman, a former federal prosecutor, and Barbara Jones, a former federal judge, was commissioned after the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) called for SJP to be banned from over twenty CUNY campuses. Subsequently, 35 New York legislators responded by calling for SJP's suspension, newspaper editorial boards demanded action against the student group, the New York State Senate threatened to cut CUNY's funding and the New York City council considered legislation in response.
In their 24-page report, the “Task Force” emphasized that student conduct supporting Palestinian rights such as die-ins, mock checkpoints and banners is constitutionally-protected speech. The report also described a "tendency to blame SJP for any act of anti-Semitism on any CUNY campus," which it called a "mistake."
The report focused on four CUNY campuses with active SJP chapters: Brooklyn College, CUNY Staten Island, Hunter College, and John Jay College. It concluded that:
- Calls for boycotts and divestment in response to Israel’s human rights abuses “should not be tarred as anti-Semitic”
- SJP was not to blame for genuine incidents of anti-Semitism, such as swastika graffiti or threatening comments at a rally
- Banners with depictions of a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) are protected speech and should not be removed.
The findings also describe incidents of Islamophobia and censorship targeting SJP students, including cyber harassment and vandalism. In one case of censorship, an administrator told John Jay SJP students not to use sheets with red paint to depict Palestinian lives lost in Gaza because they “would make people uncomfortable.”
Citing the Supreme Court, the report emphasized that: “Political speech is often provocative and challenging, but that is why it is vital to university life. If college students are not exposed to views with which they may disagree, their college has short-changed them.”
The ZOA said they were “worse than disappointed” with the outcome which they thought “did the opposite of what it was supposed to do.”
University then apologizes to student publicly, promises equal application of policy
Inspired by the many flags he had seen hung outside residential hall windows during his three years at George Washington University (GW), Mr. Abounaja, a junior biomedical engineering major, hung a Palestinian flag out his dorm window in October 2015. On October 26, a campus police officer came to Mr. Abounaja’s door, instructed him to remove his flag because of complaints the department had received, and filed a police report. The following week, Mr. Abounaja received a ‘Warning Letter’ from GW threatening future sanctions should he be named in a “subsequent report.”
In the following weeks, Mr. Abounaja attempted to discern what policy he violated, writing the university, calling, and emailing several times. “I felt like I was being singled-out, because of my heritage and the viewpoint of my speech, for something I’ve seen dozens of students, fraternities and other student groups do in my three years at GW. . . ,” Mr. Abounaja wrote.
“The events of the last week have left me feeling humiliated, upset and like I can’t even feel safe in my own dorm room. I’ve had finals this week and have found it very hard to study or to think about anything else.”
For weeks, Mr. Abounaja received no communication from GW explaining what rule he had allegedly broken. GW failed to provide him with a hearing or any opportunity to respond to the allegations against him.
On December 7, Palestine Legal wrote GW, explaining that the university’s actions appeared to be based on complaints by other students who disagreed with the viewpoint of Mr. Abounaja’s message. In its letter, Palestine Legal requested that the ‘Warning Letter’ be removed from Mr. Abounaja’s file, that GW issue an apology and clarify that its policies would not be discriminatorily enforced against students based on the viewpoint of their message or their national origin.
On December 10, after a large public outcry, GW President Knapp called Mr. Abounaja and apologized for GW’s treatment of Mr. Abounaja. Later that evening, the apology was posted on GW’s website, along with a statement that GW would revise its policies so that they were applied evenly.
The ‘Warning Letter’ issued by GW to Mr. Abounaja has been rescinded and removed from his file.
Drawing near the border is not a crime
On December 2 2015, Palestinian-American artist and author of the graphic novel Baddawi, Leila Abdelrazaq, and two friends were detained and interrogated near the Mexico border because Ms. Abdelrazaq's notebook sketches and Arabic writing apparently raised red flags.
The incident took place in Nogales, Arizona, where Ms. Abdelrazaq was researching her next art project. Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends were near the border for only a few minutes, soaking in the surroundings and sketching the scenery in a notebook, when several Customs and Border Patrol Officers (CBPOs) approached. The officers asked them to leave, and they complied.
As they were leaving, the CBPOs apparently became suspicious of Ms. Abdelrazaq's drawings and detained and questioned Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends for nearly four hours. When they ordered her to hand over her sketchbook, Ms. Abdelrazaq initially objected for personal and privacy reasons, though she ultimately complied. The CBPOs looked through the book, noting Arabic writing among the sketches. CBPO returned the sketchbook and ultimately let Ms. Abdelrazaq and her friends go.
“I had never seen the US-Mexico border before, and since my next project is about immigration and borders, I just wanted to see it for myself,” Ms. Abdelrazaq said. “Alongside my sketches, I included notes in both Arabic and English that poke fun at my choppy Arabic. I didn’t realize self-deprecation would get me in trouble.”
New York University: SJP Investigated for Distributing "Mock Eviction Notices"
On April 24, 2014, NYU SJP distributed “mock eviction notices” to two NYU residence halls with a sentence informing the students that their suite was scheduled for demolition in three days, several paragraphs on Israel’s home demolition policies, and the statement that “[t]his is not a real eviction notice . . . This is intended to draw attention to the reality that Palestinians confront on a regular basis.”
Later that day, the Times of Israel published an article by the president of NYU’s pro-Israel advocacy group, TorchPac, falsely claiming that that SJP had targeted a dorm with a “high concentration” of Jewish students (because one of the two residence halls had a Sabbath elevator), and that the action constituted “anti-Semitic fear mongering.” Several news outlets repeated the baseless claims, and SJP was summoned to speak with the administration and forced to defend itself against the false and inflammatory charges in the media.
NYU spokesperson John Beckman later rebuked the charges of anti-Semitism, explaining that “we don’t believe there is perception of [these dorms] being home to a higher percentage of Jewish students (the presence of a Sabbath elevator in one of them is the result of a stairway that empties to the street and cannot be entered through the lobby behind the security desk, not because of a large presence of Jewish students in the building). . . .” Likewise, SJP stated that it chose these two particular dorm rooms because they were NYU’s largest and the most accessible to SJP members.
Palestine Legal advised SJP. No disciplinary action was taken.
Ohio University Student Senate President Received Death Threats After Pro-BDS video
In August 2014, Ohio University president Roderick McDavis took the “ice bucket challenge,” a campaign to raise money for research on Lou Gehrig’s disease, where participants pledge a donation, make videos of themselves dumping buckets of ice water on their heads, and then challenge others to do the same. McDavis asked student senate president Megan Marzec to take the challenge.
Marzec responded by making a video of herself taking a “blood bucket challenge,” in which she dumped fake blood on her head to protest Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and in support of BDS. Marzec soon received thousands of hate messages, including death and rape threats. The University informed Marzec that President McDavis had also received death threats, and Marzec was advised to go into protective housing, to not walk alone and to accept a police escort.
On September 4, two days after Marzec posted the video, President McDavis issued a statement distancing the university from Marzec’s message and emphasized the need for “civility” in discussions about Israel/Palestine.
Students active with Hillel and Bobcats for Israel (a campus Israel-advocacy group), along with other national and international pro-Israel groups, called for Marzec’s resignation, and four students with Bobcats for Israel were arrested by campus police after they interrupted a student senate hearing and called for Marzec’s resignation. In February 2015, all four students were charged with fourth degree misdemeanor four disturbing a lawful meeting after they refused to plead guilty to lesser charges.
Dozens of OU faculty signed a statement supporting Marzec and raising concerns that OU’s invocation of “civility” “too often . . . functions to silence dissent and debate on issues of current concern.” Palestine Legal wrote to Ohio University administrators, advising them of their obligation to protect Marzec and others who speak out for Palestinian rights against groups that claim anti-Semitism and call for punishment of free speech activities.
Professor Steven Salaita Fired by University of Illinois for Gaza Tweets
In August 2014, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) terminated the tenured appointment of Steven Salaita, a professor hired by the American Indian Studies department. Salaita was fired after he published angry and sarcastic twitter messages regarding the brutality of Israel’s assault on Gaza. The termination occurred a mere two weeks before he was scheduled to begin teaching and after both parties had announced the appointment; Salaita and his wife had resigned from their previous jobs and prepared to move.
In a letter to the Chancellor and the Board, Palestine Legal, along with the Center for Constitutional Rights and other civil rights advocates, argued that UIUC’s action not only ignored the university’s obligation to protect the academic freedom of its faculty, but also threatened to chill academic speech on matters of public concern across the country.
Records obtained by journalists indicate that the Chancellor was responding to the concerns of big donors, including one who has given hundreds of thousands to the university and is on the board of Hillel. Other evidence points to the involvement of large Israel advocacy organizations like the Jewish Federation in drumming up complaints against Salaita.
Outrage from the academic community at this utter disregard for the free speech rights of appointed faculty led more than 5,000 academics to boycott UIUC, over sixteen UIUC departments to take votes of no confidence in the Chancellor, and students to campaign to get Salaita reinstated.
Salaita filed a lawsuit against the University on January 29, 2015, for violations of his First Amendment and due process rights, breach of contract, and other tort claims. The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Loevy and Loevy represent Salaita in the litigation.
Detailed information about the case, including court documents, letters from academic and civil rights organizations, an can be found at CCR’s case page.
UCLA Students Falsely Accused of Anti-Semitism & Harassment
Backlash for challenging influence of Israel Lobby on campus
In the spring of 2014, following a campus divestment debate, UCLA students raised concerns about the influence of Israel lobby organizations on campus. A coalition of student groups organized an “ethics pledge” asking student government candidates not to accept free trips sponsored by organizations that promote discriminatory and Islamophobic positions. This request included trips sponsored by organizations such as the ADL, AIPAC, and Hasbara Fellowships. SJP also filed charges with student judicial council, asking it to consider whether accepting such trips to Israel should be considered a material conflict of interest under UCLA student bylaws.
Zionist organizations on and off campus characterized the ethics pledge and the judicial council case as “intolerance,” “harassment,” and “bullying” of Jewish students, claiming they made Jewish students feel unsafe on campus. The AMCHA Initiative issued a letter and action alert, and had a personal meeting with Chancellor Block, demanding that SJP be investigated and sanctioned.
The students advocating for the ethics pledge and the judicial council case extensively explained that their efforts were motivated by their experiences of racial bias and discrimination and concern about Israeli state practices. But UCLA Chancellor Gene Block ignored SJP’s concerns and responded to the heavy off-campus pressure by issuing a statement “on civil discourse” that characterized SJP’s advocacy as unwise intimidation, even if protected by the First Amendment. UC system-wide President Janet Napolitano also condemned the student campaign as violating principles of “civility, respect, and inclusion.”
Targeted by the LA City Council
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles City Council responded over the summer by proposing a resolution to condemn student advocacy against the Israeli lobby on campus. It mischaracterized student advocacy as “bullying” and “harassment,” and urged the University of California to restrict their speech activity. The resolution also urged the UC to refer cases of “intimidation or harassment” (and by clear implication, the advocacy activities of SJP) to “the proper law enforcement agencies.”
Palestine Legal wrote to the Council warning that “if passed, this Resolution would violate the LA City Council’s obligations under the First Amendment … by directing the UC to censor political debate on campus on a specific issue. The Resolution casts exactly the “pall of orthodoxy” over the UC on matters of public concern that the Supreme Court has proscribed.” The ACLU of Southern California, the National Lawyers Guild of LA and other civil rights organizations signed-on to the letter. The resolution did not move forward in the City Council.
Throughout the campaign of legal bullying, SJP continued organizing for Palestinian rights on campus, and the following semester, they succeeded in passing a divestment resolution in their student government.
Falsely accused of creating an anti-Semitic climate:
A few months after passing divestment, in February 2015, student government council members wrongly questioned Rachel Beyda, a nominee for the student judicial board, about whether she could maintain objectivity given her Jewish identity. The campus community roundly condemned the questioning, including Students for Justice in Palestine, and the council members themselves.
The incident set off a media frenzy of concern over anti-Semitism on campuses, allegedly caused by criticism of Israel and divestment debates on campus. The New York Times covered the story on the front page, claiming that it reflects “a surge of hostile sentiment directed against Jews at many campuses in the country, often a byproduct of animosity toward the policies of Israel” and noting that “this is one of many campuses where the student council passed, on a second try and after fierce debate, a resolution supporting the Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions movement aimed at pressuring Israel.” Haaretz ran a headline, “On-campus BDS is feeding anti-Semitism: UCLA is case in point.”
Despite SJP’s efforts, very little mainstream media coverage included their perspective, or questioned the narrative that advocacy for Palestinian rights causes anti-Semitism on campus.
Resolution re-defined anti-Semitism to include criticism of Israel:
Following the anti-Semitic questioning of the judicial board nominee, on March 10, 2015 the undergraduate council passed a “Resolution Condemning Anti-Semitism” that re-defined anti-Semitism to encompass almost any criticism of Israeli policies.
The re-definition included what’s called the “3 Ds” – “demonization, delegitimization and applying a double-standard” to the state of Israel – a formulation that brands advocates for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic by blurring the important distinction between criticism of Israel as a nation-state and anti-Semitism. Jewish Voice for Peace wrote that the re-definition “further enshrines long-standing political efforts to silence legitimate criticism of the state of Israel by codifying its inclusion in the definition of anti-Semitism.”
Palestine Legal published, “What to Know About Efforts to Re-define Anti-Semitism to Silence Criticism of Israel” explaining that what is termed the “State Department definition of anti-Semitism” or the “3 Ds” has dubious legal authority and chilling consequences for open debate.
University of California: Graduate Student Union’s Right to Boycott Challenged
In December 2014, United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 2865 – a union representing 13,000 graduate student instructors at the University of California - voted to support the movement for boycott and divestment of Israel, becoming the first major labor union in the U.S. to support BDS. The previous July, the union leadership had passed a general statement in support of BDS. The final statewide membership vote favored a resolution that called on the UC to divest, and called on the International UAW to divest. 65% of voting members supported the resolution for divestment. The resolution also asked members to take an individual anonymous pledge to support the academic boycott, for which 52% of voting members (1136 individual graduate students) voted yes. The vote triggered significant backlash and legal threats.
Political opponents raised false accusations that the resolution would constitute unlawful discrimination and would violate university policy. An opposition website argued, “BDS is potentially illegal,” and claimed the union would be subject to a lawsuit, citing legal threats made against the American Studies Association. The same opposition group circulated a letter to the President of the International UAW falsely claiming that the union’s support for the academic boycott “bars people with Israeli citizenship from joining the union.” These accusations mischaracterized the resolution, ignored the union’s emphatic statement of opposition to all forms of discrimination, and ignored the union’s clear explanation that the boycott targets institutions, not individuals. In response to legal threats, Palestine Legal explained that the union was clearly engaging in First Amendment protected speech and that the boycott did not call for discriminatory action against individuals.
Shortly before the vote, the American Center for Law and Justice sent a letter threatening legal action to the local union leadership, the UAW international, and the University of California alleging the same violations of discrimination law, union law, and university policy. The letter threatened union leaders with “individual liability.” Palestine Legal again confirmed that these claims were baseless because there was no unlawful action, no possibility of individual liability, and the First Amendment protects the union’s action.
In addition to the direct threats against the union and union officials, off-campus organizations like the AMCHA Initiative and the Brandeis Center targeted the statewide UC administration with demands that the university prohibit graduate-student instructors from discussing BDS in the classroom. The AMCHA Initiative generated “over a hundred emails,” according to a letter from the University of California, complaining that the union's activity supporting boycott and divestment violates UC policy on what can be discussed in the classroom.
The university responded to external pressure in September 2014, on the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, by forwarding AMCHA’s letter to the chancellors of all nine UC campuses. The message from the UC President’s office was vague – it listed policies that govern the conduct of graduate student instructors in the classroom. But given that the university forwarded AMCHA’s call for censorship, the university’s letter could be reasonably construed as a direction to chancellors to monitor and suppress discussion of boycott and divestment. At least one graduate student reported changing course material to avoid relevant content related to Israel/Palestine due to ambiguity over whether the university would prohibit teaching the subject.
Palestine Legal continues to advocate within the UC system to mitigate the chilling effect of attacks on Palestine advocacy and to protect the rights of faculty and students to engage in critical discussion.
Pillar of Chicago Palestinian Community Unjustly Prosecuted
In October 2013, the Department of Homeland Security arrested Rasmea Odeh, a pillar of the Palestinian community in Chicago, and charged her with ‘unlawful procurement of naturalization’ for omitting mention of her arrest and conviction by an Israeli military court on her citizenship application. Many commentators observed that the prosecution was designed to intimidate and silence Palestine activists in the U.S.
Odeh was arrested, tortured, sexually assaulted, convicted and imprisoned by Israel in 1969 for a terrorist act she maintains she did not commit. After ten years in Israeli prison, she was released in a prisoner exchange. She has lived in the United States since 1994, and became a citizen in 2004. Odeh has gained widespread respect and recognition for her work as a civil liberties advocate and an organizer in the Arab American community.
Communities across the country mobilized for Rasmea’s defense. Palestine Legal issued a statement with over sixty other rights groups opposing Odeh’s indictment, and is a member of the Rasmea Defense Committee.
In August, 2014, the federal district court judge appointed to Rasmea’s case recused himself after defense counsel argued that the judge had strong ties to Israel, and the judge revealed that his family’s business interests in Israel might taint his impartiality in the case.
The court subsequently denied Odeh’s motion to dismiss the charges on the basis that the indictment was the fruit of an illegal investigation targeting 23 Midwest activists in 2010 including Odeh’s colleague and her organization, the Arab American Action Network. Prosecutors also attempted to empanel an anonymous jury, a rare move that would have seriously prejudiced Odeh’s defense if it had been granted.
The week before Odeh’s trial was scheduled to begin, the court ruled that Odeh and her attorneys were forbidden from testifying or presenting evidence of the torture she endured while in Israeli custody, a move which, according to her counsel, “gutted the heart of Rasmea’s defense and makes a fair trial impossible.” The torture expert who would have testified on Odeh’s Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was also prohibited from taking the stand. At the same time, the prosecution was permitted to present dozens of documents from the Israeli military court.
In November 2014, Odeh was found guilty after a four-day trial and immediately taken into custody. Palestine Legal, along with other civil rights and social justice organizations urged the judge to reconsider his decision to deny Odeh bond pending her sentencing hearing. In December, the Court granted a defense motion to reconsider its decision, recognizing that Odeh’s ties to her Chicago community meant she was not a flight risk.
In March 2015, Odeh was sentenced to 18 months in prison, a $1,000 fine, immediate revocation of her citizenship, and deportation to Jordan after serving her sentence. Odeh was released on bond pending appeal. The judge acknowledged that the outpouring of community support influenced his sentencing decision, but denied that the prosecution was political.
In June 2015, Odeh appealed her conviction to the US Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Cincinnati, Ohio. The appeal urged the court to reverse the conviction, arguing that Odeh was denied her right to present her complete defense.
In February 2016, the US Court of Appeals ruled that the district judge erred in denying Odeh and the torture expert the opportunity to testify about her PTSD. The court overturned Odeh’s conviction and returned her case to a district judge for retrial.
Odeh’s new trial was set for May 2017. However, in December 2016, prosecutors issued a new indictment against Odeh with additional charges that Odeh was engaged in “terrorist activity” and that she was associated with a “designated terrorist organization.” Odeh’s attorney noted that the new charges attempted to bypass Odeh’s PTSD defense since the allegations occurred before her torture by Israeli interrogators.
In March 2017, Odeh pled guilty to the charge of Unlawful Procurement of Naturalization, recognizing that she had little chance of receiving a fair trial. As her attorney, Michael Deutsch explained, “the government took a run of the mill immigration violation case and they made it into a terrorism case…We knew that given the climate and given all the things the government was prepared to do, she was not going to get a fair trial around these charges…[and] if we won this case, the government could still deport her.” Odeh accepted a deal that would strip her of her U.S. citizenship and require her deportation, but that allowed her to stay free until her departure.
On August 17, 2017, Odeh and her supporters attended her final court hearing, the formal sentencing, in Detroit. She was sentenced, as agreed, to time served, fined $1,000, and ordered to be stripped of her citizenship and deported from the country. In a statement to supporters, Odeh said she would continue to fight for Palestinian freedom.
Immigration authorities will now decide when Odeh is obligated to leave the U.S.
- For more information, see http://justice4rasmea.org/
- Palestine Legal and other rights groups’ statement: http://palestinelegalsupport.org/2013/10/23/psls-ccr-and-33-other-rights-groups-sign-statement-opposing-indictment-of-palestinian-american-activist-rasmea-odeh/
- Palestine Legal Director Dima Khalidi writes in the Huffington Post and the Hill on the political prosecution of Rasmea Odeh.
Barnard College: ‘Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine’ Banner Removed
On March 10, 2014, Columbia Students for Justice in Palestine (which consists of students from Barnard College and Columbia University) installed their hand-painted banner with the message “Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine.” They followed the standard procedure for student groups wishing to advertise an event in front of Barnard Hall. The banner also contained a hand-drawn map of historic Palestine and the hashtag #IAW, a shorthand for Israel Apartheid Week.
Within hours of the C-SJP banner’s installation, an email campaign opposing the banner was started by the former president of the Columbia/Barnard Hillel. A Facebook post from the former Hillel president called Israeli Apartheid Week an “attempt to perpetuate the pernicious lie that Israel is an apartheid state” and an “anti-Semitic” display.
Without notice, and within hours, Barnard removed SJP’s banner. On March 11, Barnard Dean Avis Hinkson announced the College’s decision to reexamine its “long-standing” tradition of installing banners promoting student events alongside the official Barnard banner, stating that “until we have had time as a community to discuss the banner placements on Barnard Hall and better define a policy, [the College] will not be hanging student banners on Barnard Hall.”
Palestine Legal, as co-counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, wrote Barnard College, asking the College to reaffirm its commitment to free speech principles. The letters stated that Barnard’s explanation for the banner’s removal—that it wanted to avoid the perception that the university was endorsing the banner’s content—was disingenuous, given that student banners had hung in the same place for many decades without any confusion as to whether the university was endorsing their messages.
Loyola University: Students Unfairly Punished for Demonstration of “Birthright Israel”
In September 2014, several students at Loyola University—Chicago (LUC) learned of a tabling event happening on campus the next day publicizing Birthright Israel, a program that takes Jewish youth from around the world on free trips to Israel. According to a statement by LUC SJP, the SJP chapter decided not to endorse any actions, but individual Palestinian and other students later decided to line up at the table to attempt to register for a Birthright trip. The purpose of the protest was to highlight the discriminatory nature of the program because as protestors explained, “Any Jewish student worldwide can register for the program, while indigenous non-Jewish Palestinians are not only ineligible for the program, but often are denied the right to live in or even visit their homeland freely.” About fifteen students lined up quietly at the Birthright table, and the students at the front of the line engaged in a conversation with the tablers about why they were not allowed to register for Birthright, even though their ancestral villages are located in present-day Israel. As Palestine Legal explained to the administration, several individuals hosting the table told the protestors to leave, after which the Palestinian students in line took a picture together and then dispersed.
One article claimed that the protestors blocked the Birthright table, insulted and threatened the tabling students, and violated multiple school policies. The article was based on statements from Hillel affiliated organizers of the tabling event.
The university began an investigation of the students for alleged misconduct, at first suspending SJP’s status as a student group while the investigation was pending and later reinstating the group.
In a letter to Loyola administrators, Palestine Legal, together with the Council on American-Islamic Relations and attorney Rima Kapitan, raised concerns that the university’s investigation threatened peaceful speech activities. The letter highlighted the inflammatory and unfounded nature of the accusations made against SJP and the individual students, which the letter stated fit in with a pattern of such complaints across the country.
After a month-long investigation, Loyola charged SJP with six disciplinary violations, including bias-motivated misconduct, harassment and bullying, disruptive conduct, and violating the demonstration policy by failing to register their event. Loyola’s Hillel chapter, which sponsored the Birthright Israel tabling, was also charged with failing to register its own tabling event. After a four-hour long hearing Loyola found SJP responsible for only one of the six charges – failing to register their “demonstration.” Hillel was also found responsible for a similar charge. The sanctions, however, were strikingly disproportionate. While Hillel was required to meet with LUC administrators to clarify school policies, SJP Loyola was suspended for the remainder of the academic year – depriving it from any additional funding for its activities and putting the group at risk of more severe sanctions for any other infractions. The group was also required to undergo intergroup dialogue training. SJP Loyola’s appeal was denied.
American Studies Association Attacked for Academic Boycott of Israel
In December 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) passed a historic resolution to endorse the call of Palestinian civil society for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. In doing so, it became the second U.S. academic association to pass an academic boycott resolution, following the Association for Asian American Studies. Multiple academic associations have since passed similar resolutions, generally endorsed BDS, or agreed to consider BDS. To the ASA members who voted by a two-to-one margin in support of the boycott, the vote “represents a principle of solidarity with scholars and students deprived of their academic freedom and an aspiration to enlarge that freedom for all, including Palestinians.” Palestine Legal provided legal support to the ASA, from the run-up to the vote, to the aftermath of the resolution’s success, as hasbara organizations launched vigorous campaigns to punish the ASA.
Pressure Campaigns & Lawsuit Threats
The ASA received thousands of hate mail messages from Zionists responding to action alerts. Some messages included violent imagery, and many contained racist, homophobic rhetoric, and legal threats. Professors and American Studies departments associated with the ASA were targeted by campaigns from donors and alumni demanding that university administrators defund American Studies departments or cut off their ability to participate in the ASA. In response, a few universities withdrew their institutional membership in the ASA and according to the opposition blog “Legal Insurrection,” over 250 college and university presidents made statements condemning the resolution.
In January 2014, William Jacobson, Zionist activist, law professor, and “Legal Insurrection” blogger, submitted a complaint to the IRS to challenge the ASA’s tax-exempt status. The complaint argued that the ASA’s academic boycott is not consistent with its educational purpose and goes against public policy, and the IRS should therefore strip the ASA of its tax-exempt status. To date, the ASA has not received any notification that the IRS responded.
At the same time, the Shurat HaDin Israeli Law Center threatened to sue the ASA unless the organization “immediately take all necessary steps to cancel the boycott of Israeli institutions and academics.” Shurat HaDin claimed that the academic boycott resolution is anti-Semitic, illegal and discriminatory.
Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights responded on behalf of the ASA, writing to Shurat HaDin to inform them their threat was based on unsupported allegations, and that the ASA’s boycott resolution is core political speech, protected by the First Amendment. We emphasized that the ASA resolution is grounded in the same anti-discrimination principles as other historical divestment and boycott strategies such as the South Africa divestment movement and civil rights boycotts in the US south. To date, no lawsuit has been filed.
Legislative Attacks on Academic Freedom
In addition to the legal threat directed at the ASA itself, bills were introduced in 7 states (New York, Illinois, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Florida, Kansas, South Carolina) and the U.S. House of Representatives which, if passed, would have sanctioned or condemned universities with associated organizations that voted to support academic boycotts of Israel.
A coalition of civil rights groups, including Palestine Legal and CCR, urged lawmakers to recognize that these bills violated the First Amendment and threatened academic freedom. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his fight against South African apartheid, also expressed “grave concern” about these legislative efforts.
We defeated the most dangerous bills in New York and Illinois that would have had direct and binding results on state funding for universities. But symbolic condemnations of the ASA passed in a few states. The following is a state-by-state breakdown of the anti-boycott legislative proposals.
On January 28 2014, the New York State Senate passed S.06432, which denied state aid to universities that funded membership in organizations that supported boycotts of Israel. New York State Assemblyman Sheldon Silver introduced a similar bill in early January, which was later withdrawn and amended. The amended bill, A. 8392A, reduced state aid to the university in the amount spent to fund travel, lodging or membership funds in an organization that had endorsed a boycott of Israel.
The New York Times called these bills “an ill-considered response to the American Studies Association resolution [that] would trample on academic freedoms and chill free speech and dissent.” The New York Civil Liberties Union, CCR, NLG, Columbia University faculty, the American Association of University Professors, The Professional Staff Congress-City University of New York, and New York State United Teachers, as well as numerous grassroots organizations also opposed the bills.
On Friday, June 20, 2014 the New York State Legislature ended its session without passing either bill.
In February 2014, Illinois State Senator Ira Silverstein introduced a bill denying state aid to universities that subsidize faculty or staff membership in academic organizations that endorse the boycott of Israel. Senator Silverstein also proposed a nonbinding resolution condemning all academic boycotts. Vigorous and organized opposition resulted in the defeat of both the bill and the resolution for that legislative session.
Maryland State Senator Joan Conway Carter and Delegate Ben Kramer also introduced bills in the Maryland Senate and House which would reduce state aid to universities that fund membership and activities in organizations supporting the boycott of Israel. After these bills stalled, Delegate Kramer introduced similar language into the Maryland State budget bill, which passed in Maryland’s General Assembly (GA) after the GA conference committee revised Kramer’s language significantly. The final language, while condemning the ASA boycott and academic boycotts generally, is non-binding and has no legal force.
Palestine Legal and other groups warned lawmakers that the Maryland bill could violate the First Amendment and threaten academic freedom “by penalizing universities and faculty for taking public positions based on their political and moral principles.” Pro-Israel organizations, such as the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee and the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington also opposed the bill.
In February 2014, Reps. Peter Roskam (R-IL) and Dan Lipinski (D-IL) introduced a bipartisan bill in Congress in direct response to the ASA vote. Dubbed the Protect Academic Freedom Act, H.R. 4009 would deny federal funds to academic institutions or groups within those institutions that “participate” in the academic boycott of Israel. The bill did not advance out of committee or gain additional sponsors. Palestine Legal worked with CCR, NLG and CAIR to urge the House of Representatives Education and the Workforce Committee to oppose this legislation, which, we said, “seeks to punish political speech on matters of public concern at institutions of higher education . . . [and] threatens core First Amendment principles.”
South Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Florida
A non-binding resolution condemning the ASA boycott passed in the South Carolina House on February 18, 2014.
In Pennsylvania, a resolution condemning the ASA boycott, HR 627 passed in the House on March 12, 2014. An identical resolution introduced in the Pennsylvania Senate, SR 279, did not advance.
The Florida State Senate adopted a resolution (SR 894) with similar language condemning the ASA boycott on April 11, 2014, which CCR and Jewish Voice for Peace said “impermissibly intrudes into the academic freedom of faculty members who wish to speak on matters of public concern on the basis of differing viewpoints of certain Senators, in violation of the First Amendment.”
Olympia Food Co-Op: Lawsuit Attacks Boycott of Israeli Goods
In September 2011, the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs sued Olympia Food Co-op board members after the board voted to boycott Israeli goods. The plaintiffs, Israel supporters who were Co-op members, claimed that the board breached its fiduciary duty by not following correct procedures for such votes. In 2011, a Washington state court granted defendant board members’ anti-SLAPP motion – which argued that the purpose of the lawsuit was to silence the Co-op’s political viewpoint supporting Palestinian rights. The court agreed, finding that the lawsuit was a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP).
StandWithUs appealed the decision. In early 2014, the Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court’s dismissal, finding that the lawsuit was a meritless suppression of speech protected by the First Amendment and ordered StandWithUs to pay $160,000, plus attorneys’ fees.
StandWithUs appealed again, and oral arguments were held at the Washington Supreme Court on January 20, 2015. A decision is expected in the next few months.
Palestine Legal filed an Amicus brief with a number of organizations highlighting the role of the far-right group StandWithUs, who receives funds from the Israeli government, and the role of the Israeli government itself, in stifling speech. The amicus situates the Olympia lawsuit as part of those larger efforts.