Judge Rules Pro-Israel Students Cannot Anonymously Sue UMass Amherst Over Palestine Event

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The case continues…for now

You may not be aware, but the lawsuit against the University of Massachusetts Amherst over its May event “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights,” is still in play (sort of).

Last spring, UMass Amherst made headlines when three anonymous pro-Israel students tried — and failed — to get a court to bar a panel featuring Marc Lamont Hill, Linda Sarsour, Roger Waters, Dave Zirin, and moderator Vijay Prashad from taking place on campus.

A Boston judge denied the preliminary injunction and the panel, which was organized by the Media Education Foundation, along with Jewish Voice for Peace Western Mass and other groups proceeded as planned on May 4. Over 2,000 people attended the event.

While the court allowed the event to take place, the anonymous plaintiffs did not drop the lawsuit, and the question of whether UMass Amherst violated Massachusetts discrimination laws and breached its contract with the anonymous pro-Israeli students is still before the court. But that lawsuit is now in limbo.

Update from the court

In an important development last month, the judge ruled in a memorandum that the students cannot hide behind a veil of anonymity if they want the case to move forward. Courts make very few exceptions for anonymous proceedings, usually limited to cases involving abortion, mental health, or minors.

"[I]n requesting anonymity, plaintiffs apparently fail to see the irony in their argument that 'under the veil of anonymity that posting on the internet provides, internet users are willing to say things that they otherwise would not,'" the judge wrote in a memorandum. "One of the Court's concerns in allowing the parties to proceed anonymously in this type of case is the greater ease with which an anonymous party can make irresponsible or unsubstantiated allegations.

The judge also pointed out that the plaintiffs had no issue repeatedly naming each member of the UMass board of trustees in their legal documents — including a student trustee.

In an unexpected footnote, the court also acknowledged that meritless legal complaints are often a strategy to harass university administrators into censoring speech. The judge cited current Trump Administration official and former pro-Israel lobbyist Kenneth Marcus, who wrote in 2013 that pro-Israel groups intend to "expose administrators to bad publicity" through bringing accusations of antisemitism against them for allowing pro-Palestinian activity on campus. 

The plaintiffs have until July 25 to decide whether to re-file the case with their real names. The judge will dismiss the case if they choose not to.

Anonymity as a tactic

Anonymous attacks have become a mainstay feature of anti-Palestinian suppression efforts. Canary Mission, the blacklist site that profiles hundreds of advocates for Palestinian rights - primarily focusing on students, recent graduates, and professors, is a prime example. For years the operators of the site have remained anonymous. 

A similar anonymous effort called OutlawBDS.com published compiled dossiers of dozens of activists in 2017 and sent them fake legal threats. Earlier this year it was revealed that the site was run by former Israeli intelligence agents

UPDATE 8/2:

The court gave the pro-Israel students til September 20 to re-file the lawsuit with their real names, after UMass agreed to their request for more time due to the summer break.

Read our full case page on UMass Amherst here.