An appeals office has once again dismissed San Francisco Hillel’s claim that the student group was denied a table at a Know Your Rights fair at San Francisco State University (SFSU) on the basis of religion. The decision, issued last week, affirmed an earlier finding by campus investigators that Hillel's identification as a Jewish organization played no role in the denial.
The rejected charge of religious discrimination also forms the basis of two lawsuits filed in state and federal court by the right-wing Lawfare Project, the self-described “legal arm of the pro-Israel community.” The federal judge dismissed the case in March for failure to state a plausible discrimination claim, but Lawfare Project refiled the case in April.
Hillel’s charge of religious discrimination stemmed from a volunteer-run Know Your Rights fair at SFSU in February 2017 to educate vulnerable communities in the wake of Trump’s inauguration. SF Hillel had asked fair organizers to provide them a table inside the fair to distribute literature. After fair organizers declined the request, SF Hillel accused them of religious discrimination.
Campus officials investigated and dismissed this claim in July 2017 because the evidence did not support a finding that organizers were biased against Hillel as a Jewish organization. Campus investigators found instead that fair organizers were motivated by Hillel’s political viewpoint and that organizers had retaliated against Hillel for previous unsubstantiated discrimination complaints Hillel members had filed.
The California State University Chancellor’s Office, which decided the appeal, noted that political viewpoint is not a characteristic covered by the university’s anti-discrimination policy. The appeals office dismissed the viewpoint discrimination finding as falling outside the scope of a discrimination inquiry.
The appeals office also decided the student organizers’ appeal of the retaliation finding. It found no evidence of retaliation for two of the three students. It found, however, that it was reasonable for SFSU to conclude that the evidence “(however slightly)” favored a finding that one member of the committee was motivated in part by the past unsubstantiated complaints.
The retaliation finding was based on a student’s statement explaining that fellow students feel unsafe because members of SF Hillel “are engaging in these bullying legal tactics, where they bring grievances, and accusation that are trumped up, false accusations against them that vilify Palestinians and present them as antisemitic and racist.”
“The university’s decision once again clears the organizers from the false accusations of discrimination. But the decision reinforces a blame-the-victim legal bullying dynamic against supporters of Palestinian rights," said Zoha Khalili, Palestine Legal staff attorney. "Students who were targeted by a public smear campaign for engaging in human rights advocacy tried to protect themselves at a Know Your Rights Fair intended to bolster such advocacy. If the university is going to characterize their efforts as retaliation, there is something wrong with the university's policies."