Members of a University of Texas Palestinian student group filed a formal civil rights complaint on Tuesday with UT officials after they say a professor strongly suggested one of them was a terrorist.
The complaint comes in the aftermath of a charged classroom confrontation on Friday. Just before a lecture on the history of Israel's military began, one member of the student group held up a Palestinian flag and another member, UT law student Mohammed Nabulsi from Dallas, started delivering a speech about how the Israeli military had forced his family to become refugees.
An edited version of the encounter posted on YouTube by the group, the Palestine Solidarity Committee, shows the situation quickly became agitated: One person ripped away the Palestinian flag from the group member holding it, followed by shouting and finger-pointing. Members of the student group chanted "Free, free, Palestine!" and "Long live the Intifada!" At one point UT professor Ami Pedahzur, who was overseeing the event and heads the university's Institute for Israeli Studies, was held back by other attendees of the lecture as he appeared to press upon Nabulsi.
UT police were eventually called and the member of the group who had been holding the flag, a former graduate student, was issued a notice for trespass, the group says. On Tuesday, UT officials said university police determined that none of the actions at the lecture rose to the level of a criminal offense.
The group's complaint filed Tuesday, addressed to UT's offices of Institutional Equity and Compliance Services, draws attention to a letter Pedahzur posted after the incident on a university website, which was later removed.
The complaint accuses Pedahzur of illegally releasing Nabulsi's name and unfairly linking the group's actions to the terrorist attacks in Paris.
"Less than forty eight hours after horrific attacks in Paris, I feel that is my responsibility to ask you to join me in an attempt to confront the radicalization process on campuses and to protect students, staff and faculty members from intimidation and violence," a copy of Pedahzur's letter posted on his Facebook account says.
"After spending two decades of learning how people turn to terrorism, I fear that what I witnessed on Friday should raise many red flags...We cannot let such individuals terrorize us," Pedahzur wrote.
"I believe in the First Amendment and in full academic freedom," his letter concluded. "However, neither the law nor its moral foundation protects coercion or direct attempts to impede freedom of speech and academic discourse."
Pedhazur declined to comment and referred questions to university officials.
At a press conference on Tuesday, Nabulsi said Pedahzur had "defamed my character and insinuated that my political expressions are red flags for terrorism."
"At a moment when anti-Muslim, anti-Arab sentiment is at a high, not only are his statements bigoted and hateful, but they have also endangered Muslim and Arab students on this campus, affecting our right to an education free from discrimination."
The Palestinian student group is asking for a formal investigation of Friday's incident and Pedahzur's letter and a reprimand of Pedahzur.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, UT President Gregory L. Fenves said he had not seen the video but added that university officials are reviewing the students' allegations and taking them seriously.
"Free, unencumbered speech" is a fundamental value of the university, which should provide "a supportive environment for these discussions," Fenves said.
Randy Diehl, UT dean of the college of liberal arts, said the university has protocols for protesters to voice their opinions and officials are trying to determine if they were followed on Friday's incident.
The university "strives to be a campus where people with different viewpoints can debate issues —including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — openly and respectfully, Diehl said. "Our Institute for Israel Studies has always striven to do that."
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict dates to before the creation of Israel and centers on disputed land and holy sites in the Middle East. Despite efforts at creating two states – an independent Palestine alongside Israel, as envisioned in a series of accords – Palestinian territory remains under Israeli control, leading to a cascade of claims of rights violations. That has led, from time to time, to Intifadas – or uprisings – both armed and unarmed.