UMass Amherst: Lawsuit Attacking Free Speech Event

UMass Amherst: Lawsuit Attacking Free Speech Event

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.

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Fordham Bans Students for Justice in Palestine

Palestine Legal, together with the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel Alan Levine, filed a lawsuit in New York challenging Fordham University’s denial of club status to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).

Fordham student Ahmad Awad. Photo: Martin Nunez-Bonilla

Fordham student Ahmad Awad. Photo: Martin Nunez-Bonilla

The decision to deny club status to SJP occurred in December 2016 – more than a year after Fordham students had applied to start an SJP club. The justification was that the group would create "polarization" on campus and "run contrary to the mission and values" embraced at Fordham.

Palestine Legal represents current and former Fordham students Ahmad Awad, Sofia Dadap, Sapphira Lurie and Julie Norris, who hoped to organize events on Palestinian history and raise awareness on the issue of Palestinian rights.

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. Without club status, the students may not hold events, obtain funding, flyer or invite guest speakers.

The lawsuit argues that Fordham, a private university, violated Article 78 by failing to follow its own rules and policies that bar it from restricting students’ expressive activities based on the positions being advocated. New York courts have ruled that even private universities may not arbitrarily and capriciously violate their own rules.

Timeline

Nov. 19, 2015: Fordham students submit application to form an SJP club as per Fordham's rules.

Nov. 17, 2016: Fordham’s student government votes to approve SJP as a club at Fordham.

Dec. 22, 2016: Fordham dean overrules the student government’s decision and denies club status to SJP in an unprecedented decision.

Jan. 17, 2017: Palestine Legal and CCR send letter to Fordham expressing concern over SJP denial.

Apr. 26, 2017: Students sue Fordham, seeking an order compelling approval of club status for SJP.

June 5, 2017: Fordham files motion to dismiss case.

July 7, 2017: Students file brief opposing Fordham's motion to dismiss.

July 17, 2017: Fordham files its reply brief.

Nov. 2, 2017: Students file order to show cause why preliminary injunction should not be issued and expedited discovery granted against Fordham.

Dec. 15, 2017: Fordham files its brief opposing Students’ preliminary injunction and request for expedited discovery.

Dec. 22, 2017: Students file reply brief.

Jan. 3, 2018: Court hears oral arguments on Students’ preliminary injunction and Fordham’s motion to dismiss.

Feb. 8, 2019: Students file motion to add a new petitioner to the case.

Mar. 4, 2019: Fordham files a motion opposing adding a new petitioner to the case.

Mar. 11, 2019: Students file reply brief.

May 8, 2019: Court hears oral arguments on adding new petitioner to the case.

Select Media Coverage

Letters Supporting the Formation of SJP

  • Catholic clergy and professors letter

  • Fordham faculty letter

  • Friends of Sabeel North America letter

  • The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and the National Coalition Against Censorship (NCAC) letter and second letter

  • Jewish Voice for Peace letter

  • Middle East Studies Association letter

  • US Campaign for Palestinian Rights statement

  • US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel open letter

Legal Documents (in progress)

UC Berkeley Suspended Course on Palestine

Paul Hadweh, student instructor of the suspended course. 

Paul Hadweh, student instructor of the suspended course. 

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

Letters from Students, Professors, and Associations

Select Media Coverage

Boston U: SJP Members Wrongfully Ejected From Hillel Event

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.

BU BRIDGE. CREDIT:  JASONIC

BU BRIDGE. CREDIT: JASONIC

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.”

Relevant Links

  • Letter from Palestine Legal, CCR and the NLG-Massachusetts Chapter to Boston University
  • A video of the incident can be found here.