Students Argue for Urgent Relief to Be Able to Advocate for Palestinian Rights on Campus
January 3, New York, NY – Today, Fordham students denied permission by their university to start a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) club argued their case before a Manhattan judge. The students, represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Palestine Legal, and cooperating counsel Alan Levine who argued in court today, first filed suit in April, and Fordham moved to dismiss the case. In November, the students filed a motion for a preliminary injunction asking the court to direct Fordham to recognize SJP now, since some of the students will soon graduate. In court today, the students defended this motion and argued against Fordham’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit as a whole. Fordham’s decision to fight the lawsuit rather than correct course suggests it is entrenched in its censorship of Palestine advocacy on campus.
“If the court does not intervene now, our opportunity will pass to ask Fordham to reconsider their selective protection of political speech and to stop having completely one-sided conversations about Palestine,” said Sofia Dadap, one of the petitioners and a senior. “What my peers and I care about is not simply the state of free speech protection on university campuses, though it is unconscionable that Fordham has created these conditions in which many students no longer feel safe to voice support for Palestine. What we believe in is standing against racism and imperialism and actively promoting collective self-determination for Palestinians and all colonized peoples.”
The students asked the court to order Fordham to reinstate the student government’s approval of SJP before a final decision on the merits of the case is reached. Otherwise, petitioner Sofia Dadap and petitioner Julie Norris will likely graduate before the court makes a determination, depriving them of the opportunity to advocate for Palestine as SJP at Fordham. Without club status, students cannot invite guest speakers, reserve meeting space, distribute or post materials, or solicit members through club fairs.
Students filed their reply to the university’s opposition to their preliminary injunction on December 22, arguing that Fordham has deprived them of their freedom to advocate for causes in which they believe without arbitrary censorship by college officials, a right guaranteed by Fordham’s own policies.
On the merits of the case, the students argued that the Fordham administration’s veto of the student government’s approval of SJP was arbitrary and capricious, violating its own policies guaranteeing free expression and relying on unfounded justifications. Fordham attempted to justify its decision by asserting that the purpose of SJP, which is to promote justice and human rights for Palestinians, leads to polarization, and because of reports that some separate SJP groups on other campuses have engaged in disruptive activities, without regard for whether those reports were accurate, or the fact that SJP groups operate independently. Fordham disregarded evidence that countered university officials’ stated concerns about SJP, instead basing its decision on materials from individuals hostile to SJP’s views.
“The judge had many thoughtful questions for Fordham. The university’s full-throated defense of its ban of Students for Justice in Palestine not only violates its commitment to free expression, but also flies in the face of the Jesuit university tradition of engaging with profound ideas and fighting for justice,” said CCR Deputy Legal Director Maria LaHood. “Fordham should do what’s right and recognize Students for Justice in Palestine.”
Palestine Legal and CCR have documented “the Palestine Exception” to free speech, the broad and growing pattern of suppression of Palestinian human rights activism across the United States, particularly on campuses. Tactics used to suppress Palestine advocacy include administrative disciplinary actions, harassment, firings, baseless legal complaints, legislative attacks, and false accusations of terrorism and antisemitism. Palestine Legal responded to 650 such incidents of suppression targeting speech supportive of Palestinian rights from 2014 to 2016.
“This case is a critical test of how far private institutions can go in censoring advocacy for Palestinian rights, which has been subjected to a broad-based attack by Israel-aligned groups,” said Dima Khalidi, Director of Palestine Legal. “We urged the court today to ensure that Fordham doesn’t get away with an arbitrary decision based on administrators’ skewed and false perceptions about students’ political advocacy on one of the most enduring human rights debacles of our time.”
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.