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.

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(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.”

At RNC, Media Put a Happy Face on Suppression of Speech

WKYC-RNC

Originally published at Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting.

News media could either be our ally or our enemy—we wanted them as an ally,” Laurie Pritchett said in a 1985 interview about his strategy as police chief in Albany, Georgia, during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s desegregation efforts in 1962.

Pritchett famously ordered his officers to enforce the city’s segregation laws nonviolently and arrest as few protesters as possible. He knew that if he had acted as other police departments had—like Bull Connor’s dogs and firehoses in Birmingham (1963) and Jim Clark’s Bloody Sunday in Selma (1965)—news media would show the country how brutally oppressive police were, inspiring greater public support for King’s cause. In short, he beat nonviolent protesters at their own game by exploiting the media.

At the Republican National Convention this past week, none of the fears about a violent disaster bore fruit. Journalists and private citizens who worried about Ohio’s open-carry gun policy and the recent increase in public tension between cops and protesters were relieved that the week passed without a single gunshot fired or tear gas canister thrown. Like Pritchett’s officers in Albany, police in Cleveland—whose department was found to have practiced a pattern of excessive force and civil rights violations in a Justice Department investigation—exercised restraint compared to how police have handled protests in Ferguson (military trucks, sound canons, tear gas, rubber bullets) and Baton Rouge (hundreds of arrests).

Just as Pritchett expected in 1962, media jumped to praise law enforcement. “Credit where it’s due: The police nailed it,” Vox staffer German Lopez (7/22/16) wrote. In a list that reads like a police officer’s handbook, he offered three detailed explanations for why the police “nailed it”:

Read the rest here.

Islamophobia Following Paris Attacks: Defending Only Favorable Speech Is Not a Defense of Free Speech

Originally published at the Fordham Observer

Following the attacks on the offices of the satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in Paris, large numbers of Westerners have been emphatically defending the right to free speech. Though it’s refreshing to see free speech rights at the top of our political discourse, this instance deserves scrutiny. It seems that only when favorable speech is attacked do people turn out en masse to defend free speech. Westerners have rallied for Charlie Hebdo not on free speech grounds, but rather because they approve of the content.

Days after the attacks, nearly four million people, including more than 40 world leaders, rallied across France in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. These world leaders don’t actually support the right to free speech, waging their own wars on journalists and political dissidents. As Daniel Wickham tweeted, among the marchers were U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron, who forced The Guardian to destroy hard drives that stored the files of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; Attorney General Eric Holder of the U.S., where several journalists have been arrested in Ferguson and where the Obama justice department has prosecuted more government leakers under the Espionage Act of 1917 than all prior administrations combined; Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose military forces killed seven journalists in last summer’s assault on Gaza; King Abdullah of Jordan (whom Jon Stewart likes to joke around with on his show), which sentenced a Palestinian journalist to 15 years in prison with hard labor for “attacking Jordan’s image”; Turkish Prime Minister Ahmet Davutoğlu, whose country imprisons the most journalists in the world;  Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukryto of Egypt, which in 2014 sentenced three Al Jazeera journalists to at least seven years in prison;  Prime Minister Enda Kenny of Ireland, where “blasphemy” is a crime; and Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, who had a journalist arrested for insulting him in 2013. You’ll never see four million people marching to defend these restrictions on free speech.

The largest free speech hypocrite following the attacks is the French government itself. From the Patriot Act in the U.S. to Bill C-44 in Canada, Western governments always devise ways to curtail civil liberties following any (Islamic) “terrorist” attack. France is no different. Days after the attack, the France government increased electronic surveillance, staged 10,000 troops to protect “sensitive sites,” and deployed nearly 5,000 police officers to defend the country’s 700 Jewish schools. Meanwhile, several mosques in France were attacked with grenades. Following the free speech march, the French government has arrested at least 54 people, including controversial anti-Semitic comedian Dieudonné, for “defending terrorism.”

The French government takes the increasing tide of anti-Semitism very seriously, but doesn’t do the same for Islamophobia. While declaring in response to the attacks that “France without Jews is not France,” Prime Minister Manuel Valls refuses to use the term “Islamophobia.” By selectively protecting one targeted community and disregarding bigotry against another, France is telling its Muslim population that they aren’t as important.

Several journalists jumped to stand (and publish the blasphemous cartoons) in solidarity with Charlie Hebdo. Jacob Weisberg, Slate‘s editor-in-chief, tweeted, “Best response to #CharlieHebdo attack — other than catching and punishing killers — is to escalate blasphemous satire.” Though Vox’s Matt Yglesias pointed out that one should simply not publish racist cartoons, he also wrote, “To blaspheme the Prophet transforms the publication of these cartoons from a pointless act to a courageous and even necessary one.” In an op-ed entitled, “The Blasphemy We Need,” The New York Times‘ Ross Douthat wrote, “that [that which causes others to violently retaliate] kind of blasphemy is precisely the kind that needs to be defended, because it’s the kind that clearly serves a free society’s greater good.” Most egregiously, New York Magazine‘s Jonathan Chait argued, “One cannot defend the right without defending the practice.” Because these writers rarely jump to defend speech that criticizes or degrades non-Muslims, it’s clear that the type of speech these writers are referring to is anti-Islam speech.

This is not the right response. Many were quick to point out the anti-Islam, racist, and homophobic nature of Hebdo‘s cartoons, including one that depicted Boko Haram’s sex slaves as welfare queens. Others simply made fun of Muslims generally. These racist cartoons make clear that Hebdo‘s white staff was trying to further marginalize Muslims in France. Charb, the magazine’s murdered editor, even told the AP in 2012, “I don’t blame Muslims for not laughing at our drawings. I live under French law. I don’t live under Quranic law.” Jacob Canfield rightly called it the “edgy-white-guy mentality… nothing is sacred, sacred targets are funnier, lighten up, criticism is censorship” — otherwise known as the French version of the Bill Maher/Sam Harris complex.

Just because I have the right publish racist cartoons doesn’t mean I’m going to. It’s a right I choose not to exercise. I can defend another’s right to publish racist ideas while simultaneously condemning them — just as the ACLU defends the right of neo-Nazis to march through a town filled with Holocaust survivors in Skokie, Illinois while at the same time condemning their ideas.

Though it’s featured cartoons making fun of Christianity and Judaism, Charlie Hebdo is not an “equal opportunity offender” as some have suggested. In 2009, Hebdo fired Sine, one of its cartoonists, for writing what some called an anti-Semitic sentence. Sine later won a judgment against the magazine on the basis of unfair termination. Like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, Islam is the most frequent target of their bigotry. Rarely ever do they mock Judaism or Israel. As Glenn Greenwald wrote, “Parody, free speech and secular atheism are the pretexts; anti-Muslim messaging is the primary goal and the outcome.”

Even more dangerous is when writers or cartoonists self-censor themselves for fear of legal or economic repercussions, as we’ve witnessed academics like Steven Salaita face. In an article that featured both “blasphemous and otherwise offensive cartoons [and] not-remotely-blasphemous-or-bigoted yet very pointed and relevant cartoons,” Greenwald wrote:

When we originally discussed publishing this article to make these points, our intention was to commission two or three cartoonists to create cartoons that mock Judaism and malign sacred figures to Jews the way Charlie Hebdo did to Muslims. But that idea was thwarted by the fact that no mainstream western cartoonist would dare put their name on an anti-Jewish cartoon, even if done for satire purposes, because doing so would instantly and permanently destroy their career, at least.

Hebdo‘s white staff doesn’t have to deal with this when their target is Islam. The content of their cartoons are deemed favorable by Westerners.

The discourse on free speech since the Hebdo shooting has made one thing clear about most Westerners “defending” free speech: to defend free speech, one must approve of the speech. The only speech to be protected is that which degrades unfavored groups (Muslims) while rendering free from criticism or prosecution any speech that does the same to favored groups (Christians, Jews) in the guise of liberal principles. Society, however, should not be judged on how it treats its favored groups; society should be judged, rather, on how it treats its most marginalized, oppressed groups. Until the bastions of free speech start defending speech which Western society finds most repellent and government finds most dangerous to itself, their selective application of free speech principles isn’t helping anyone.