In October, students at the University of California, Los Angeles say they got a striking lesson in what legal groups call the “Palestine exception to free speech.” The graduate student government at the school agreed to fund an event on diversity–but on the condition that the gathering had no connection to the movement to divest from companies linked to the Israeli army.
The funding condition, disclosed to members of Students for Justice in Palestine and reported by the school newspaper, has sparked harsh criticism of the president of the Graduate Student Association (GSA), and prompted legal groups to send a letter to the university reminding them of their constitutional obligations. The uproar over the funding condition, and a subsequent “neutrality position” on Israel/Palestine, has also led to the resignation of one member of the Graduate Student Association. The GSA president, Milan Chatterjee, has denied wrongdoing and said he only wanted the GSA to be neutral on Israel/Palestine. And pro-Israel legal groups have also weighed in with their own letter, arguing that the GSA did nothing unconstitutional.
The funding stipulation is part of what activists see as an attack on the rights of pro-Palestinian students to organize.
“This is a wake up call to everybody as to what it means to be a [pro] Palestinian activist on campus,” said Yacoub Kureh, the president of UCLA’s SJP chapter.
In recent years, UCLA’s student government has been the scene of bitter spats over Israel/Palestine and the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement. The UCLA undergraduate student government passed a resolution in favor of divestment in November 2014. Top UC officials have weighed in to criticize the movement. The debate at UCLA also comes in the context of continuing administrative crackdowns on pro-Palestinian organizing. In October, George Washington University campus police instructed a student to take down a Palestinian flag outside of his window.
This latest campus fight in California began on October 15, when the Diversity Caucus of UCLA applied for $2,000 in funding from the GSA cabinet to put on an event about diversity, a hot topic on campus in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and incidents like a Kanye West-themed frat party, where students wore blackface. GSA president Chatterjee responded that his cabinet could fund the event, as long as “your organization has zero connection with ‘Divest from Israel’ or any equivalent movement/organization.” Chatterjee followed up with an e-mail repeating the same demand. The Diversity Caucus accepted the stipulation because they needed the money for the event, but a member of the caucus also shared the stipulation with SJP members, who were taken aback–particularly because the Diversity Caucus had nothing to do with Israel/Palestine.
Chatterjee told me he intended for the funding stipulation to apply to both sides of the issue–those in support of divestment and those against it. In other words, he said that the GSA’s policy is to remain neutral on Israel/Palestine, and not fund any side of the issue. When asked why his e-mail only made mention of “Divest from Israel,” he said that he clarified, in a phone conversation with the Diversity Caucus organizer shortly after he sent the e-mail, that “this applies not just to pro-BDS, but it applies to any counter-movement, anti-BDS…Unfortunately, she chose not to release that conversation to SJP or any other party. She purposefully misled or omitted that fact.”
Manpreet Dhillon, the Diversity Caucus organizer who Chatterjee spoke with, says that Chatterjee never told her the funding condition applied to both sides.
On November 18, the American Civil Liberties Union, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights sent a strongly-worded letter to UC Chancellor Gene Block.
The GSA funding stipulation “violates the well-established First Amendment rights of student organizations on campus, and must be rescinded immediately,” they wrote. The legal groups say that it is “unconstitutional for the student government to discriminate in funding student groups and their projects based on viewpoint.” The university has since said it is investigating the dispute to get to the bottom of it.
Pro-Israel legal groups like the Pat Robertson-founded American Center for Law and Justice argue that it was well within the rights of the GSA to remain neutral on the issue. Chatterjee and these groups have also argued that the GSA agreed to fund the event out of a cabinet fund, instead of the regular discretionary fund, and did not want the funding to be construed as an endorsement of BDS.
Liz Jackson, a lawyer with Palestine Legal, told me that the ACLJ’s letter to the school is misleading. She said that while student governments have the right to fund or not fund certain projects, “the university is required to distribute what’s called ‘mandatory student fees’ in a viewpoint neutral manner.” (Mandatory student fees is money collected by the university for funding of student activities and groups. The Supreme Court has ruled they must be distributed without viewpoint discrimination.)
When I asked Chatterjee in an e-mail how this separate cabinet money was funded–and whether it came from mandatory student fees–he said that he was “very ill” and does not “have access to the GSA documents.” Jackson said that “the GSA has not provided any information about what ‘special’ fund the money came from. The affected students would love to know. If the money came from mandatory student fees that all UCLA students pay as part of their tuition, which it most likely did because this is how the GSA is funded, then the law is perfectly clear: the GSA cannot dictate the political views of funding recipients. If the money came from elsewhere, then Chatterjee should explain that and provide the documentation, but he has not.”
Jackson added that the dispute “is not about the misdeeds of the president of the Graduate Student Association…It’s really about the systemic issues at the UC, of repeated official denunciations of advocacy for Palestinian rights.”
This fall, top UC officials made a push to institute a speech code policy that critics say would conflate anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. UC Regent Richard Blum, who is married to Senator Dianne Feinstein, threatened that the Senator would publicly denounce the university if they did not adopt the speech code.