UMass Amherst: Lawsuit Attacking Free Speech Event

Issues: Antisemitism, Censorship, Free Speech, Lawfare

Updated: August 2, 2019


In April 2019, an anonymous group of pro-Israel students sued the University of Massachusetts Amherst in an attempt to prevent a panel featuring Marc Lamont Hill, Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, Dave Zirin, and moderator Vijay Prashad from taking place on campus.

The lawsuit and request for a preliminary injunction, which were filed with the help of the anti-Palestinian group Americans for Peace and Tolerance, argued that the event, “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” would cause “irreparable harm” to Jewish students on campus. To justify its censorship demands, the lawsuit relied on a highly controversial redefinition of antisemitism (the “IHRA/State Department” definition) that defines criticism of Israel as a form of antisemitism.

On May 2, two days before the event was scheduled to take place, a Boston judge denied the request for a preliminary injunction, writing that barring the event would be an unconstitutional “prior restraint” on speech and that there was no “compelling interest” that would be served by the injunction.

The panel was organized by the Media Education Foundation and co-sponsored on campus by the Department of Communication, the Department of Women, Gender & Sexuality Studies, and the Resistance Studies Initiative, and off campus by Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Western Mass, The Resistance Center, and Arise for Social Justice. The event was supported by UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), the Black Student Union, Prison Abolition Coalition, and Graduate Students of Color.

JVP Western Mass, represented by attorney Rachel Weber, intervened in the lawsuit on behalf of the speakers, organizers, and several other event sponsors. JVP volunteers Uri Strauss and Sarah Wunsch, together with Palestine Legal, also provided legal support.

The event took place as scheduled on May 4. Over 2000 people attended.

In late June, the judge ruled that the pro-Israel students cannot hide behind a veil of anonymity if they want the case to move forward. They were given until July 25 to decide whether to re-file the case with their real names. The judge initially said he would dismiss the case if they did not re-file by July 25, but extended the deadline to September 20 after UMass agreed to the pro-Israel students' request for more time due to the summer break.

History >>

Mar. 31, 2019: Students for Justice in Palestine announces the panel “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights”, featuring Marc Lamont Hill, Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, and Dave Zirin, and moderated by Vijay Prashad. The Facebook post advertises the panel as a discussion on how those who speak out for Palestinian rights are falsely accused of antisemitism and targeted for censorship.

Apr. 8, 2019: The New England chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-Palestinian organization, sends a letter to the chancellor of UMass Amherst claiming that the panel features speakers who “demonize Israel” and would impact Jewish students’ “sense of and security on campus”

Apr. 18, 2019: Americans for Peace and Tolerance sends an email to its listserv stating that “lawyers are constructing a legal challenge to the University to not allow this event on University property” and asking its supporters to connect their attorney with UMass students and staff.

Apr. 23, 2019: The Massachusetts Republican Jewish Committee and the Massachusetts Republican Party send a letter to UMass, warning them that sponsoring the event would be “a violation” of the IHRA/State Department definition of antisemitism, though the definition carries no legal weight.

80 pro-Israel organizations separately send a letter calling on UMass to rescind sponsorship of the event. The letter, sponsored by the anti-Palestinian AMCHA Initiative, also cites the IHRA/State Department definition of antisemitism.

Apr. 25, 2019: Three anonymous pro-Israel students file a lawsuit against the university seeking to cancel the event. The students claim that they would “suffer irreparable harm” if the event takes place on campus.

SJP publishes a statement in response to the extreme backlash they face over the event. Over 500 organizations and individuals sign onto a statement of support for SJP and the panel.

UMass releases a statement committing to “content-neutral” support for the event on free speech grounds.

UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy calls for a pro-Israel speaker to be added to “[bring] opposing sides together.”

Apr. 29, 2019: UMass files a brief opposing the pro-Israel students’ emergency motion, arguing that cancelling the event would be an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech.

JVP lawyer-member Rachel Weber files a motion to intervene on behalf of the Media Education Foundation, JVP, SJP and the event speakers, so that these individuals and groups’ interests are adequately represented.

The lawyer representing the pro-Israel students files a motion asking the court to allow those students to proceed under a pseudonym, an unusual and rarely granted request. She also files a supplementary memorandum arguing that the court should stop the May 4 event from going forward because the panel will engage in “group libel.” The motion compares the speakers’ support for Palestinian rights to “the evils of child pornography” and invokes the mass shootings at synagogues in Pittsburg and San Diego by white supremacists as a reason to enjoin the May 4 event. It also includes an affidavit falsely accusing SJP of being a “murderous” and “barbaric” organization.

JVP files a motion to strike these, and other baseless, inflammatory statements.

The judge postpones the hearing until May 2 to give each legal team time to read the respective motions.

May 2, 2019: The pro-Israel students file a motion opposing JVP’s intervention.

After brief oral argument, the court denies the pro-Israel students’ request for a preliminary injunction, refusing to censor the event because doing so would violate the First Amendment.

May 4, 2019: The event takes place as scheduled with a packed auditorium of over 2,000 people. Ten people protest outside the event.

June 25, 2019: The court denies plaintiffs motion to proceed under a pseudonym.

Court Documents & Decisions >>

Complaint and Motion for a Preliminary Injunction Against UMass

UMass Response to Motion for a Preliminary Injunction

JVP Motion to Intervene

Plaintiffs’ Opposition to JVP Motion to Intervene

Plaintiffs’ Motion to Proceed Anonymously

Plaintiffs’ Supplementary Memorandum

Court Order Denying Plaintiffs' Motion for a Preliminary Injunction

Court Memorandum Denying Motion to Proceed Anonymously

Letters and Statements >>

UMass Amherst Students for Justice in Palestine (500+ signatories)

Victory – Judge Supports UMass Panel On Palestinian Human Rights (Jewish Voice for Peace)

Radhika Sainath on Censorship Attempts at UMass Amherst

Video >>

JVP Western Mass Press Conference Before 1st Court Date

JVP Western Mass Press Conference After Lawsuit Dismissed

Video of Remarks from Radhika Sainath at JVP Press Conference

Media >>

Israel supporters try to shut down UMass forum about efforts by Israel supporters to shut down debate, Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss (April 23, 2019)

Sarsour, Waters and Hill will ‘incite… violence’ against Jewish students, say pro-Israel groups, Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss (April 24, 2019)

UMass Amherst students file lawsuit against school hosting Palestinian event, Rick Sobey, Boston Herald (April 25, 2019)

Students file lawsuit to stop UMass Israel, Palestine panel, Scott Merzbach, Daily Hampshire Gazette (April 25, 2019)

UMass Amherst chancellor calls on organizers of Palestine event to include pro-Israel side for ‘dialogue’, Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss (April 26, 2019)

At UMass, a Palestinian human rights panel draws a lawsuit, Laura Krantz, Boston Globe (April 29, 2019)

Court hearing on Israel-Palestine panel delayed, Dusty Christensen, Daily Hampshire Gazette (April 29, 2019)

Judge Declines to Block Pro-Palestinian Panel at UMass, Associated Press (May 2, 2019)

Judge refuses to bar forum at UMass Amherst on Palestinians' rights, Laura Krantz, Boston Globe (May 2, 2019)

Judge denies injunction against UMass Israeli-Palestinian panel, Dusty Christensen, Daily Hampshire Gazette (May 2, 2019)

Pro-Palestinian UMass Panel Attracts 2,000 After Lawsuit Fails to Halt Event, Democracy Now! (May 6, 2019)