Citing concerns that Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) would be too “polarizing” for the campus to tolerate, Fordham University denied status to a group of students seeking to establish an SJP club. Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights wrote Fordham today to challenge the decision as a violation of free speech and civil rights. Fordham denied the club after delaying students’ application for over one year, and after repeated questioning about their support for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) and whether they would work with the Israel lobby group J Street. There is no appeal.
“My own university told me I can’t share my culture and history like other students because I’m a Palestinian who believes in Palestinian freedom,” said Ahmad Awad, whose family is originally from the West Bank, and who hoped to be president of SJP. “I just graduated last month, so I’ll never have that chance.”
Palestine Legal’s letter explains that when Fordham censored SJP, it violated free speech and academic freedom guarantees. It also states:
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin by institutions that receive federal funding. A university may lose its federal funding if it treats a student differently because of his/her national origin, resulting in a denial of a student’s educational activities.
In a letter to students denying the club status, Dean Keith Eldredge expressed concern that SJP’s “sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group,” that the group would lead to “polarization” and that “the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue.”
“No one’s more polarizing than president-elect Trump, but Fordham did not ban the College Republicans,” said Palestine Legal staff attorney Radhika Sainath. “In singling out a group dedicated to Palestinian rights for censorship, Fordham makes a mockery of its supposed commitment to freedom of inquiry and critical thinking.”
The letter notes other political and cultural groups at Fordham that are granted associational status including the Rainbow Alliance, Women in STEM and African-American, Asian-Pacific Islander, French, Greek, Irish, Italian, Korean, German, Latino, Polish and South Asian clubs.
This incident epitomizes the well-documented and widespread suppression of Palestinian rights advocacy across the country. Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights documented hundreds of such incidents in a report released in 2015, “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack in the U.S.”
Fordham’s decision comes after mounting pressure to censor SJP’s criticism of Israeli policy. Last year the New York state senate voted to cut $485 million dollars in funding to the City University of New York (CUNY) after the Zionist Organization of America falsely accused CUNY of tolerating antisemitic activity by SJP, and demanded that CUNY ban SJP from all campuses. The accusations against SJP were rebuked after a former federal judge and prosecutor conducted a 6-month independent investigation, which determined it was a “mistake” to blame SJP.
Palestine Legal has responded to over 600 such incidents since January 2014, the vast majority of which targeted students and scholars. “As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. and the achievements of the civil rights movement through boycotts, sit-ins, and marches, and as we usher in a president who threatens to crush dissent, we must all be vigilant in safeguarding our right to come together to seek change,” said Maria LaHood, Deputy Legal Director at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “If Fordham is truly committed to fostering learning and leadership, it must allow its students to come together to seek justice for Palestine, or find itself on the wrong side of history.”