After a one-month investigation, the City University of New York (CUNY) City College of New York (CCNY) dismissed a complaint seeking to punish Students for Justice in Palestine for an April 2018 vigil. The complaint, which was filed by Students Supporting Israel (SSI) in August 2018, claimed that language calling for Palestinian freedom, including the word “intifada” caused SSI “to fear expressing their religious identity.”
“We are happy this harassing complaint is dismissed, but it was incredibly disingenuous of SSI to accuse us of incitement in the first place,” said one member of SJP. “We held this vigil to commemorate 70 years of the dispossession of our family members. At the same time as our vigil, the Israeli military was killing unarmed protesters in Gaza.”
Palestine Legal represented SJP at an investigatory meeting with CCNY’s Interim Diversity Officer. At the meeting, a student with SJP explained that the group held an event to commemorate the Nakba – when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were pushed out or fled their homes. They held the event last April, instead of May when the Nakba is usually commemorated to avoid conflicts with finals. At the outdoor event students played Palestinian music, recited names of Palestinians recently killed by the Israeli army, had a moment of silence and read a poem. During chants, the student explained that intifada meant “the shaking off of oppression.” SSI alleged these chants were “hate-filled speech.”
SSI has filed a number of baseless complaints against students supporting Palestinian rights across the country.
The group, which is funded by right-wing Israeli Adam Milstein’s family foundation, has attempted to block a student-initiated course on Palestine at UC Berkeley, lobbied to shut down National SJP’s conference at UCLA, locked pro-Palestinian students out of a public event at UC Irvine, physically attacked a student at CCNY, and filed an 11-page complaint against students at Columbia University - falsely alleging that campus speech supporting Palestinian rights violated New York criminal law, civil law and university rules. The university similarly dismissed that complaint.
SSI’s tactic of filing false, harassing complaints is part of the larger strategy of “lawfare,” employed by anti-Palestinian groups to chill speech supporting Palestinian human rights. Between 2014 and 2018, Palestine Legal responded to nearly 1250 incidents of suppression of US-based Palestine advocacy. A majority of these incidents took place on college campuses against students and faculty.
Last week, a federal judge dismissed one such lawfare effort against the American Studies Association for its academic boycott of Israel. A similar effort made against San Francisco State University professor Rabab Abdulhadi was also dismissed.
SJP chapters in the CUNY system have faced particular scrutiny and attacks from pro-Israel organizations. In 2016, the Zionist Organization of America sought to ban SJPs from over 20 CUNY campuses. CUNY rejected this call after an independent, six-month investigation made it clear that SJPs were not responsible for instances of alleged antisemitism in the school system, and that language criticizing Israel’s policies, including the word “intifada” was protected by the First Amendment.
In April 2018, CCNY cancelled an SJP event because it considered it to be controversial and feared it would generate negative publicity. Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights wrote to CUNY that the cancelation violated the First Amendment. The event was subsequently reinstated and the university apologized to the students.
“Universities’ scrutiny of speech supporting Palestinian freedom harms all campus community members,” said Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Radhika Sainath. “It threatens to shut down robust debate on one of the most urgent foreign policy, moral and political questions of our time. The First Amendment doesn’t permit this type of viewpoint discrimination.”
Other students facing administrative or legal suppression for speech supporting Palestinian rights are encouraged to contact us through our intake form.
View our case page for incidents at CUNY here.