Advocates point to alarming reliance on sources hostile to Palestine advocacy to justify ban
July 10, 2017, New York, NY – Friday, students at Fordham University filed their opposition to the school’s motion to dismiss their lawsuit over its refusal to grant club status to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The students, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Palestine Legal, and cooperating counsel Alan Levine, first filed suit in April, arguing that Fordham’s denial was “viewpoint discrimination” in violation of university policies regarding free expression. Advocates say Fordham’s decision to fight the lawsuit rather than correct course suggests it is entrenched in its censorship of Palestine advocacy on campus.
“Fordham’s continued denial of students’ rights to express our political views on campus is unacceptable,” said Ahmad Awad, a recent graduate of Fordham. “I will continue with Fordham students to fight until the university recognizes our right to advocate for Palestinian rights.”
SJP first applied for club status in 2015, with plans to organize educational events about Palestinian human rights on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus. In their review of the application, administrators expressed concern that SJP’s presence would “stir up controversy,” consulted faculty and students who were hostile to SJP’s views, and delayed making a decision. A year after the application was filed, the student government approved SJP as a club. Then, in an unprecedented move, Fordham’s Dean of Students, Keith Eldredge, overruled that decision on the grounds that having an SJP chapter on campus would lead to “polarization” and that the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) “presents a barrier to open dialogue.”
“Fordham’s decision to deny students the ability to form a club to express their political views and educate the Fordham community on Palestinian rights flies in the face of their commitment to free expression and open inquiry,” said Center for Constitutional Rights Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood. “Collectively advocating on behalf of Palestinians or in support of BDS should not be banned anyplace, much less at a University which touts its commitment to promote justice and protect human rights.”
In the filing today, CCR and Palestine Legal argue that by denying SJP official club status on the basis of its political message, Fordham acted arbitrarily and capriciously, and in bad faith, violating its own policies guaranteeing free expression. As Fordham’s June filing revealed, Fordham’s decision relied almost entirely on materials provided by individuals openly hostile to SJP’s views, including its support for BDS. Fordham officials disregarded evidence that belied Fordham’s concerns about SJP, and readily available sources that would have refuted detractors’ allegations and attested to SJP’s potential to positively contribute to campus discourse.
The filing also asserts that Fordham acted in bad faith by violating its own procedures for granting clubs official recognition when, at an advanced stage in the process, it replaced the club registration rules with new rules that had never previously been distributed or applied, and which gave the Dean the power to veto the student government’s approval of clubs.
Advocates supporting the filing, including a Fordham professor and a Jewish Voice for Peace staff member, say that groups like Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham play a vital role in raising awareness about Israel‘s human rights abuses, especially as the world marks fifty years of Israel’s occupation this summer. They also argue that Fordham’s ban on SJP is the result of a concerted effort to shut down advocacy for Palestinian rights, especially on university campuses; Palestine Legal responded to 650 incidents of suppression targeting speech supportive of Palestinian rights from 2014 to 2016.
“Again and again, we’re seeing university administrators respond to pressure from Israel-aligned individuals and groups to condemn, censor and punish advocates for Palestinian rights, said Dima Khalidi, Director of Palestine Legal. “We cannot allow some people’s discomfort with the reality of Israel’s decades-long subjugation of Palestinians to trample cherished free speech principles and stop the conversation before it even starts – especially on college campuses.
Palestine Legal is an independent organization dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom. Our mission is to bolster the Palestine solidarity movement by challenging efforts to threaten, harass and legally bully activists into silence and inaction. Visit www.palestinelegal.org and follow @pal_legal.