Fordham Bans Students for Justice in Palestine

Fordham student Ahmad Awad. Photo: Martin Nunez-Bonilla

Fordham student Ahmad Awad. Photo: Martin Nunez-Bonilla

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.

Relevant Documents

Legal Documents for Awad, et. al. v. Fordham University

Petition to Challenge SJP Ban

Fordham’s Motion to Dismiss:

Petitioners’ Opposition to Fordham’s Motion to Dismiss:

Fordham's Reply: 

Petitioners' Preliminary Injunction:

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)

Fordham faculty letter in support of SJP (Feb. 19, 2017)

US Campaign for Palestinian Rights statement standing with SJP against Fordham's ban (March 21, 2017)

Catholic clergy and professors letter to Fordham University (Mar. 28, 2017)

Coverage

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)