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)

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.

CUNY: Independent Investigators Clear SJP

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).

Credit: Bonnie Natko

Credit: Bonnie Natko

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
  • Criticism of Zionism should not be equated with anti-Semitism

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.”

Relevant Links

NYU: SJP Investigated Over Human Rights Flyers

New York University: SJP Investigated for Distributing "Mock Eviction Notices"

credit: scott Beale

credit: scott Beale

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.

UCLA: Students Falsely Accused of Anti-Semitism

Backlash for challenging influence of Israel Lobby on campus 

Credit: SJP UCLA

Credit: SJP UCLA

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.  

Relevant Documents

Barnard College: Palestine Justice Banner Censored

Barnard College: ‘Stand for Justice, Stand for Palestine’ Banner Removed 

credit: BWOG

credit: BWOG

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.

Relevant Documents

Loyola: Students Punished for "Birthright" Demonstration

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.

Relevant Documents

Northeastern University: SJP Suspended for Human Rights Flyers

Northeastern University: Student Group Suspended for Distributing "Mock Eviction Notices"

On March 7, 2014, Northeastern University suspended its Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter after SJP distributed mock eviction notices raising awareness of Israel’s policies of demolishing Palestinian homes.

Campus police interrogated two SJP students in their homes, approached two students in class and called four other students on their phones. The two students who were interrogated were charged with violating dorm policies.

Palestine Legal, along with CCR, the NLG and the ACLU of Massachusetts called on Northeastern to lift SJP’s suspension, arguing that the group’s suspension constituted viewpoint discrimination in violation of Massachusetts law. The students mobilized a community campaign to protest Northeastern’s decision, organizing mass demonstrations and call-in campaigns that received media attention. On April 23, 2014, SJP announced that the administration had reinstated SJP.

Northeastern’s history of discriminatory treatment

A year before, in April 2013, SJP was punished with probation and required to write a “civility statement” after staging a walkout at a campus event featuring an IDF soldier. Campus officials had warned students by email before the event not to hold signs or engage in "vocal disruption." The students instead taped the names of children killed by the IDF to their shirts and staged a mostly silent walkout.  The university charged SJP with failing to comply with school officials’ directions and violating the demonstration policy because they did not register their demonstration at least one week in advance. They were found responsible for the second charge. 

Other student groups had previously staged similarly unregistered demonstrations for which they were neither charged, nor punished, most prominently Zionist students’ protest of a lecture by Norman Finkelstein, which involved repeated vocal disruptions of the speaker.

The suspension of 2014 and the probation of 2013 occurred in the context of significant external pressure on the university to restrict SJP’s activity. In July 2013, the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) complained to Northeastern in July 2013 of a hostile, anti-Semitic environment, threatened a Title VI complaint, cc’ing Robert Shillman, a major university donor affiliated with ZOA. A right-wing group, Americans for Peace and Tolerance, released a documentary film targeting SJP’s faculty advisor, two other professors, and SJP as a whole. The films included footage secretly recorded at SJP events and the professors’ classes. Professors and SJP students subsequently reported receiving death threats.

Students reported a pattern of discriminatory treatment, which likely occurred in response to this external pressure. For example, in the spring of 2013, the administration notified SJP that its mock checkpoint event was cancelled the day before it was to take place, supposedly because SJP had not followed proper procedures. Students complained that campus police were present at all SJP events, against SJP’s express wishes. Finally, students reported that the administration revoked SJP’s status as a student group for failure to properly sign a form, but reinstated it when the students quickly responded. Palestine Legal, through CCR Cooperating Counsel, complained to Northeastern that these bureaucratic obstacles created a pattern of apparent discriminatory treatment.

Relevant Documents