Fordham’s Arbitrary and Capricious War on Students for Justice in Palestine

Fordham SJP Rally

Supporters rally in solidarity with the Fordham chapter of Students of Justice in Palestine at the university’s Lincoln Center campus in New York, January 23, 2017. (Joe Catron)

On the first day of the Spring 2017 semester, national media outlets broke the story. That morning, two legal organizations, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, sent an eleven-page legal letter to Fordham University’s president contending that the school’s decision to deny official club status to the Jesuit university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) violated free speech principles and students’ civil rights.

“This experience has underscored how difficult it is to talk about Palestinian freedom in America without facing serious suppression,” Ahmad Awad, the chapter’s then-president, wrote in the New York Daily News. “I was devastated to discover that Fordham would prohibit SJP — and, even worse, do so not because of any bad behavior, but simply because of what it represents on paper.”

We—that is, Fordham SJP’s founding members, of which I was one—expected to face some Zionist resistance, but the categorical ban blindsided us. After all, several other universities in the tri-state area—Columbia, NYU, John Jay, Brooklyn College, Hunter, Pace, Princeton, Rutgers, and Yale—and many other Jesuit universities—Georgetown, Boston College, Loyola Chicago, and Marquette—have SJP chapters, among the 200 in the US advocating on college campuses for the basic rights of Palestinians. But Fordham did not. In the fall of 2015, we set out to correct that, just over a year after the brutal Israeli assault on Gaza in the summer of 2014 that killed more than 1,500 Palestinian civilians in 51 days. As citizens of an imperialist state that financially, diplomatically, and militarily enables Israel’s war crimes, ethnic cleansing, settler colonialism, and apartheid more than any other, we had a responsibility to stand in solidarity with Palestinians. Doing so on Fordham’s campus, we found, was made close to impossible.

Our experience is not unusual. In fact, it is a manifest example of a phenomenon known as the “Palestine exception to free speech,” a disproportionate effort across American institutions to stifle and punish advocacy for Palestinian rights. State governments; officials at museums, community centers, and non-profits; and university administrations in particular regularly capitulate to pressure from pro-Israel lobbyists and suppress the free speech rights of pro-Palestine activists. In a 2015 report, our attorneys at the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal documented nearly 300 instances of suppression of Palestine activism on more than 65 US college campuses in an 18-month period. Ours was just one.

After submitting our application, we were met with several setbacks, including concern over, to quote the dean of students, “rogue chapters” of SJP that were engaging in forms of direct action that he said he wouldn’t like to see at Fordham. The dean, the director of student affairs, and the student government were also concerned that our support for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), a nonviolent movement initiated in 2005 by Palestinian civil society to put economic pressure on the state of Israel to restore basic rights to Palestinians, would “stir up controversy.”

Finally, after 364 days of delays and questioning along these lines, Fordham’s student government voted on our application in November 2016. Despite an organized attempt by a few professors and Fordham’s Jewish Student Organization to sway the vote against us, the student government approved SJP for club status. “This chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham fulfills a need for open discussion and demonstrates that Fordham is a place that exemplifies diversity of thought,” its statement read. “[SJP’s] presence will help to create a space for academic discussion and promote intellectual rigor on campus. We do not believe that the presence of Students for Justice in Palestine will take away from efforts to promote a safe environment on our campus.”

But on December 22, the last day of final exams before winter break, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge emailed us to say that he was exercising his never-before-used veto power to overrule the student government’s vote, denying us club status.

First, he wrote, “I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.” Second, he wrote that our unwavering support for BDS “presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding” and fosters “polarization rather than dialogue.” Last, Eldredge took issue with our name, saying that its “affiliation” with the national chapter is not the “best way to provide” “open, academic discussion and the promotion of intellectual rigor on campus.” “There is no appeal of my decision,” he wrote in a follow-up.

But if Fordham is “committed to research and education that assist in the alleviation of poverty, the promotion of justice, the protection of human rights,” as the mission statement proclaims, then Eldredge’s claim that the political goals of the Palestinian people “clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University” is without merit. Since the Nakba, the forced removal by Zionist paramilitaries of 750,000 Palestinians at the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the settler colonial government of Israel has increasingly chipped away at the land and rights of Palestinians. Every few years, Israel “mows the lawn” in Gaza, its genocidal euphemism for bombing the besieged population into submission. As occupied people of the West Bank and Gaza, as second-class citizens of Israel, or as refugees across the world denied the right to return, Palestinians should be among the least controversial of groups deemed worthy of international solidarity.

As Radhika Sainath, our attorney at Palestine Legal, quipped, “No one’s more polarizing than president-elect Trump, but Fordham did not ban the College Republicans.” When the College Republicans invited the right-wing, racist political strategist Roger Stone to campus this past October, Fordham president Joseph McShane, S.J., denounced Stone’s “demeaning” opinions, but said he would nevertheless allow Stone’s talk to proceed. “If we err in this decision, we do so on the side of academic freedom,” he wrote. The inherent contradictions in Fordham’s alleged dedication to academic freedom expose clearly the “Palestine exception.”

We argue that there is little that fosters polarization more than Fordham’s ban on SJP. The most effective barrier to open dialogue and academic freedom is an outright prohibition on a group to advocate its political agenda—precisely what Fordham has done to SJP. The deeply flawed conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, one of the sources for the accusation that SJP is “polarizing,” will persist as long as Fordham prohibits SJP from highlighting this distinction. What’s more, every oppressed or marginalized political viewpoint is slandered by the power structure as “polarizing” and “controversial” until it becomes accepted in the mainstream. Powerful officials label something “polarizing” to delegitimize a political idea they don’t agree with.

Regarding our so-called “affiliation” with the national chapter (NSJP), we obtained email confirmation, as requested, from NSJP saying that “we have not had any requirements for any group that comes to our conference to include specific language in their respective constitutions.” NSJP’s website makes it clear: “we do not dictate to SJP chapters: all individual SJPs are autonomous student orgs on their respective campuses.” We also added a line to our proposed constitution, again as requested, making clear that “NSJP requires nothing of us, and we have no responsibility to it.” In this context, it’s hard not to view Eldredge’s decision as anything but an attack on an expression of solidarity with other groups fighting for the basic rights of Palestinians and on anti-imperialist politics more broadly.

After Dean Eldredge issued his veto, a solidarity petition created by New York City SJP garnered support from more than 125 organizations and 400 individuals. Fordham’s administration received letters expressing support for SJP from more than 125 Fordham faculty members, a group of Catholic clergy and professors, Jewish Voice for Peace, the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, the Middle East Studies Association, and the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

When Fordham announced that it planned to stay the course, SJP organized a rally. Nearly 50 supporters showed up on a cold Monday afternoon, from students to professors to our comrades in NYC SJP, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World Party, and the Samidoun Palestinian Prisoner Solidarity Network. Fordham responded by charging a member of SJP with violating the university’s demonstration policy. When Eldredge prohibited her from bringing a lawyer to her disciplinary hearing, she walked out. Eldredge then sanctioned her with a warning.

31644063924_55268b3892_o

(Joe Catron)

In April, we sued Fordham. Because Fordham is a private university, its students aren’t legally protected by the First Amendment’s free speech guarantees. So our lawsuit alleged that Fordham had violated its own policies on free expression and the proper procedure for handling a proposed club’s application—an issue justiciable under a section of New York law that prohibits action deemed “arbitrary and capricious.”

One of the major claims in the lawsuit centers on a curious email we received from the president of student government just a few weeks before the body’s vote of confidence in SJP. After I pointed out in a meeting with student government that it appeared as if our application was being handled in such a way that violated the terms of the club application process, he told us that the guidelines provided to SJP were “written incorrectly,” adding:

The formal Club Guidelines should have been copied exactly to the Club Registration Packet but for some reason that did not happen… During the making of said registration document, both myself and the members of the Office for Student Involvement assumed that the two documents would be exactly the same, unfortunately that was not the case and we are realizing the error in our assumptions…. I apologize on behalf of [student government] for the confusion… I can guarantee that there was no malicious intent for the differences in the forms, simply a lapse in editing.

It’s no coincidence that SJP was the first club to uncover this discrepancy, as no other club has been subjected to the same Trumpian extreme vetting that we were. Fordham tried to explain away the error with the dubious assertion that the confusion created by the incorrectly written documents was a “harmless error created by students, not the university,” and therefore the university wasn’t liable. Ironically, the line in the club application procedure absent from the “incorrectly written” version that magically appeared in the new one—which we did not receive until 11 months after we applied—assigned explicit, unilateral veto power to Dean Eldredge as the final step of the application process. In the old version, Eldredge’s role was merely to “approve” proposed clubs in tandem with another school administrator and before—not after—the student government’s vote.

“Fordham’s student speech policies convey at the most basic level that it cannot treat students or groups that promote views that are unpopular or controversial differently or negatively because administrators or others on campus disagree or have negative associations with them,” the lawsuit made clear. If Fordham values “freedom of expression and the open exchange of ideas,” believes that the “expression of controversial ideas and differing views is a vital part of University discourse,” and guarantees that everyone “has a right to freely express his or her positions and to work for their acceptance whether he/she assents to or dissents from existing situations in the University or society,” as its own policies state, then its selective refusal to recognize SJP—in contrast to other political groups like the Feminist Alliance, College Democrats, and College Republicans—based on how much controversy the club’s pro-Palestine, anti-Zionist, anti-racist, anti-imperialist politics could provoke is clearly arbitrary and capricious.

Further evidence for the arbitrariness and capriciousness of Fordham’s decision can be found in its concern over the perceived behavior of the “rogue” SJP chapters—NYU SJP’s mock eviction notices, for example. In a statement to media, Fordham said that its officials “aren’t in a position to know the truth of these reports,” admitting that its justification for banning SJP at Fordham was based merely on hearsay about students at other campuses, undercutting any rational basis for its decision.

When it came time for Fordham to respond to our lawsuit, it offered an entirely new justification for its decision, one that no university official raised with us at any point in the club application process. Dean Eldredge claimed that he banned SJP to prevent “the resulting possible negative impacts on student safety and the general security of the Fordham community.” As author and activist Sarah Schulman pointed out in her book Conflict Is Not Abuse, Zionists on college campuses have frequently invoked the language of safety and abuse to successfully shut down pro-Palestine activism.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, January 3, a Manhattan court could dismiss the lawsuit on the grounds that the university’s decisions are not reviewable by a court. But if the court allows the case to proceed, it will be tasked with deciding whether to grant SJP’s request for a preliminary injunction, an order requiring Fordham to temporarily recognize SJP as an official club while the court considers the merits of the case. Without this injunctive relief, SJP’s members could graduate before they have the chance to make Palestine activism a part of their college experience.

“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,” Sofia Dadap, one of the petitioners, said. “What we believe in is standing against racism and imperialism and actively promoting collective self-determination for Palestinians and all colonized peoples.”

The Fordham Observer’s Milquetoast Journalism Manifests Itself Perfectly in Story About Its Own Well-Being

Screen Shot 2016-07-01 at 4.41.02 PM

If you haven’t heard, The Fordham Observer, Fordham College at Lincoln Center’s only university-sanctioned undergraduate student newspaper for the past 35 years, is in trouble.

On April 21, the department of Communication and Media Studies announced to The Observer’s editorial board via an email from Jacqueline Reich, CMS’s chair, that it had decided to cease academic support to the paper effective May 21. CMS cancelled all the credit-bearing Observer-affiliated journalism workshops planned for the Fall 2016 semester, leaving the paper’s staff without advisors – typically CMS professors who have professional journalism experience – and without the opportunity to earn academic credit for Observer-related work.

While The Observer’s editorial board was notified of CMS’s decision, one constituency – arguably the most important – was not: its readers, who rely on the awardwinning paper for campus news. Deeming this news unnewsworthy, The Observer (for which I have written several times) failed to investigate or even file a report on the decision in its own right.

On June 25 – more than two months after CMS’s decision – the paper did, however, publish a simple write-up of the correspondence among concerned alumni, the CMS department and the dean of FCLC. The report, written by news co-editor Stephan Kozub, rather than investigating why CMS decided to cut ties with The Observer, instead focused on a letter sent to CMS signed by 115 Fordham alumni in support of The Observer.

Because this piece marked the first public acknowledgement by the paper of CMS’s decision, it’s likely that many readers were initially perplexed by the story’s headline, “Over 100 Alumni Sign Letter Supporting Observer.” What caused 100 alumni to send a letter in support of The Observer? Why hasn’t The Observer reported on the answer to the previous question? Readers soon find out in the article’s lead (emphasis added):

Over 100 alumni have signed and sent an alumni-written letter to the Communication and Media Studies (CMS) Department in support of The Fordham Observer following the department’s decision to cut ties with the award-winning student publication.

The clause in bold – “following the department’s decision to cut ties with the award-winning student publication” – should be the big news. But because The Observer had previously relegated this decision to the category of Better Left Unreported, it reduced the information to dependent clause status, a common tactic among corporate media outlets to downplay the significance of something. It’s a journalism phenomena colloquially referred to as beating around the bush: reporting on something in a roundabout way with the assumption that readers already know about what is indirectly being referred to. (A prime example, which I have written about before, is how The New York Times doesn’t report on most victories of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, but rather tries to frame the momentum in the context of anti-Semitism and how Zionists on college campuses are “offended” and “traumatized” by criticisms of the Israeli government.) In this case, The Observer avoided reporting on an administrative decision that threatens its longstanding academic structure and instead issued a write-up about alumni reactions to that decision, amounting to a grave disservice to its readers.

It’s not until the second half of the fourth paragraph, following a quote from the alumni letter, when The Observer finally explains the implications of the CMS decision.

In cutting ties with The Observer, CMS has also decided to cancel all journalism workshops affiliated with the newspaper scheduled for the Fall 2016 semester, according to an April 21 email from Reich.

That information deserves a story of its own, one thoroughly and aggressively investigated.

The piece relies on quotes from an alumnus to condemn CMS’s decision:

“Since work for The Observer was done as part of academic courses and with the support of an experienced academic advisor with a background in journalism, student-journalists had a layer of protection between themselves and administrators who may want controversial stories reported a certain way or not reported at all,” Anthony Hazell, a member of the Fordham Observer Alumni Steering Committee, said. “With The Observer now being overseen solely by the administration, it puts students under the direct supervision of university staff who will be more inclined to advise against publishing articles that could be considered bad press for Fordham or that would not be a good fit with the university’s Catholic identity.”

The Observer’s choice to level an important critique of the decision using a quote from an alumnus – in The Observer’s classic pseudo-objective milquetoast style of journalism in which one side says X and the other side says Y and that’s the end of the story – reveals a hesitancy on the part of the paper’s editorial board to unequivocally condemn the decision. Although an editorial would have been more potent and more appropriate, The Observer took the safe route at the expense of its readers.

Regarding The Observer’s recent decisions, Ben Moore, editor-in-chief of The Observer, told me via email that the editorial board “decided that we would approach and report on the story from impartial angles, as it directly affects and actively involves our members.” Moore justifies his paper’s lack of initial reporting on the CMS decision by invoking the useful tenet of journalism that prevents journalists from improperly placing themselves at the center of the story. Although this journalistic practice usually serves a good purpose, sometimes reporters are the center of the story – most notably since the Obama administration has made it much more difficult for journalists to do their job by aggressively prosecuting their sources. CMS’s decision puts the entire Observer at the center of the story, so reporting it as such is responsible journalism. It is a journalist’s duty to hold those with most power accountable, even when – especially when – powerful people exercise their power in a way that harms journalists.

Moore offered a further justification: “We have received support from many different constituents of the Fordham community, many of whom are well-briefed about our current circumstance.” Although it was clear in The Observer’s report on the alumni letter, this defense amounts to an admission that the paper assumed readers knew about the CMS decision. Of course some members of the Fordham community know what had happened; that’s inevitable. But they deserved at least an early confirmation from The Observer itself. Before the several stories of government surveillance broke, many Americans suspected their emails and phone calls were being tracked. Using the assumption that readers already know about something to justify not reporting on it undermines the significance of a paper like The New York Times or The Guardian publishing a report confirming the existence of surveillance programs – and the many reforms implemented as a result of this reporting. Journalists who use this excuse degrade their own job and diminish their influence in political debate.

Yesterday Moore confirmed to me that The Observer is “currently investigating the CMS decision and will be publishing a comprehensive report.”

Readers deserve not only a comprehensive report of the CMS decision, but also a thorough explanation (read: apology) of The Observer‘s recent editorial decisions.

CIA’s Human Rights Violations Honored By Fordham University

Students and faculty at Fordham University gather in orange jumpsuits to petition President McShane to revoke CIA Director John Brennan’s honorary degree. (Photo: Louie Dean Valencia-García)

Originally published at Huffington Post.

In May just before students and faculty left school for the summer – we are back now – Fordham University President Joseph M. McShane, S.J., announced his much anticipated response to the school’s human rights advocates: the Board of Trustees had voted not to revoke CIA Director John Brennan’s honorary degree. According to Bob Howe, McShane’s press secretary, the vote was unanimous.

After the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture in December 2014, seven Fordham professors formed Fordham Against Torture (FAT), an ad-hoc committee that petitioned McShane with over 730 signatures to revoke Brennan’s honorary degree. It was awarded to Brennan in 2012 when he delivered Fordham’s commencement address, despite protests and a petition by faculty and students.

In his email to FAT, McShane wrote, “While the Board and I condemn torture and extrajudicial imprisonment in the strongest possible terms, as a public servant, Mr. Brennan does not set the policies that have led us to this place, but rather is responsible to the elected officials, including the President, who have. The President, his predecessor, and Congress are legally responsible for the creation of the policies you—indeed all of us—find so shocking.”

McShane’s response embodied classic institutional cover-up for wrongdoing (one often employed by the Obama administration): condemn the bad thing (We oppose torture) and offer a lukewarm excuse for not correcting it (Mr. Brennan isn’t responsible). It’s an easy way out, feeding the establishment media sound bites to make the administration seem morally righteous and free itself from responsibility.

Claiming that Brennan isn’t responsible for the reprehensible counterterrorism policies of the Bush and Obama administrations is like claiming that the FBI didn’t spy on civil rights activists. Brennan is widely known for developing “kill lists” of people targeted for assassination by the U.S. government and the controversial practice of “signature strikes,” drone strikes on unidentified people targeted for their behavioral patterns or for carrying a cell phone SIM card associated with an alleged “terrorist.” In a letter to the Ram, one of Fordham’s undergraduate newspapers, ex-CIA officer Ray McGovern – like Brennan, a Fordham graduate – wrote, “Brennan is now the administration’s strongest advocate of extrajudicial killing of U.S. citizens by drones.” That apparently doesn’t give McShane pause about honoring Brennan.

But even if McShane’s basis for not revoking Brennan’s honorary degree – that Brennan is not responsible for the creation of “shocking” policies – were true, his degree should still be revoked on the grounds that he didn’t, in protest of war crimes, refuse to carry out his superior’s orders. David Myers, history professor at Fordham, offered another reason for revocation on the basis that Brennan simply followed orders: “If you simply look at the last 40 years of this country’s history, subordinates or officers in the presidential administration have been held criminally responsible even though the president was directing them, even though they were just following orders.”

After citing the 1989 massacre of six Jesuits in El Salvador in which the CIA was complicit, McShane wrote, “Do not for a minute believe that honoring John Brennan is the same as honoring the institution for which he works, nor its checkered history.” The phrase “the institution for which he works” makes Brennan sound like some low-level CIA officer, furthering the narrative that Mr. Brennan isn’t responsible. The obvious truth is that John Brennan, arguably the architect of the modern-day CIA, runs the CIA and has directly contributed to its “checkered history.” So while honoring him in 2012 doesn’t honor a massacre in 1989 in which he probably played no role, it certainly does honor the human rights violations committed by the CIA since he began to hold high-level positions (in 1999, when Brennan was appointed chief of staff for then-head of CIA George Tenet). It is thus telling that McShane didn’t condemn any recent specific examples of human rights violations by the CIA, such as the more than 400 civilians killed by its drone program in Pakistan, because then he would have to admit to honoring a war criminal.

My initial reaction to McShane’s response was one of frustration and embarrassment for attending a university that honors a war criminal. Upon further reflection, I’ve realized that I have no reason to be embarrassed. What the Board of Trustees decides does not define Fordham. We, the students and faculty, define Fordham. And I couldn’t be any more proud to work with a community so dedicated to human rights and social justice.

Also, while you’re at it, get rid of Bill Cosby’s honorary degree, too.