Fordham University in New York on Wednesday called on a judge to dismiss a lawsuit filed over its refusal to recognize a chapter of the anti-Zionist group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
Four current and former students filed the motion accusing Fordham of practicing viewpoint discrimination by barring the formation of an SJP affiliate, and demanded that the university sanction the club while the case is in litigation. The private Jesuit school has argued, in turn, that SJP's reported behavior on campuses nationwide indicate that the establishment of a local branch could be "polarizing" and pose a safety concern to students and faculty.
Justice Nancy Bannon of the New York County State Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling at a later date.
Keith Eldredge, dean of students at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus, announced in a December 2016 email that he would deny SJP club status, even though the school's United Student Government voted to grant the group recognition. Under university policy, the dean has the final authority to approve or deny student clubs.
"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," Eldredge wrote at the time. "Specifically, the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding."
This decision was condemned by more than 100 Fordham faculty members, as well as Ahmad Awad, who spearheaded the drive to launch an SJP club on campus. Awad, who graduated last year, is now the lead plaintiff in the motion filed against his alma mater. He and his fellow petitioners — Sofia Dadap, Sapphira Lurie, and Julie Norris — are represented by Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), and attorney Alan Levine.
"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," Dadap said in a statement issued by CCR following Wednesday's hearing. "What we believe in is standing against racism and imperialism and actively promoting collective self-determination for Palestinians and all colonized peoples."
Dima Khalidi of Palestine Legal similarly told Democracy Now! on Thursday the university's decision amounted to "blatant censorship," and "violated Fordham's own guarantees to its students that it would respect their free expression and dissenting view."
Levine further challenged the university's decision to reject SJP over its potentially polarizing nature, pointing out that it sanctioned other clubs that could be considered controversial, such as those centered on women's and LGBT rights.
While Fordham said it would not comment while litigation was underway, Eldredge contested these arguments in his affidavit to the court. He noted that although Fordham was a private institution, and therefore not subject to the First Amendment in the same way public universities were, it was nevertheless "not impinging on those rights."
The decision — which Eldredge said followed consultation with multiple faculty, staff, and students, as well as his own research — was "based on the reported behavior of other [SJP] chapters on other campuses which gave me the reasonable belief that similar problematic behavior may occur on Fordham's campus," the dean wrote.
He argued that the proposed SJP club's stated affiliation with a national organization that "received negative press coverage" for issues affecting campus safety at multiple universities posed a "security risk to the Fordham community due to the potential polarization attendant with an SJP chapter."
Eldredge added that he "offered and would agree to approve a club" that advocates for Palestinian rights and the creation of a Palestinian state — including a club that shares similar views as SJP, but without a name that attracts "animosity and safety concerns." Such a club would receive financial support, an advisor, and physical space, like other university-sanctioned groups.
However, he wrote, "petitioners did not accept that compromise."
The students disputed this account, claiming on Wednesday that while they were asked if they would consider changing the club's name, they were not informed that their decision would affect its recognition. They also indicated that SJP intends to abide by Fordham's code of conduct.
Jason Morris, a Fordham professor who serves as the faculty advisor to the university's Jewish student group Hillel, told The Algemeiner he shares "Eldredge's concerns about the behavior of SJP chapters on other [campuses]."
He said that the problem with SJP did not stem from the group's ideology, but the tactics it employed on campus.
"I would be equally concerned if there were a pro-settler group that wanted to form a chapter here that, like SJP, had a track record of intimidating students and faculty who disagreed with them," Morris said.
Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, director of the campus monitoring group AMCHA Initiative, echoed these concerns in an interview with The Algemeiner.
"If Fordham is banning this group because they believe that such a group has no right to express itself because of its opinion, I think it's problematic," she said. "On the other hand, if the reason that they don't want [SJP] established is that other groups that have formed [on other campuses] have a very clear pattern of engaging in behavior that actually harms students, then I think they have a right to look at that and say, 'We don't want that to happen on our campus.'"
"It's narrow-minded not to look at the way in which viewpoint can be linked to behavior" such as harassment, bullying, and silencing, she added.
"The fact is, every one of our studies has found that schools with SJP groups are, depending on the year, between four and seven times more likely to have acts of anti-Jewish hostility such as assault, suppression of speech, and destruction of property," Rossman-Benjamin said.
"The guilty party behind many of the cases that we see," she observed, "are members of SJP."
Rossman-Benjamin pointed out these incidents sometimes take place at SJP events, meaning that "it's not just individuals acting of their own volition, it's a group."
"I think it's wrong for Khalidi to reduce everything to viewpoint," she said. "It's not about viewpoint, it's about the intolerant and unacceptable behavior of SJP members on many campuses. And for them not to admit that is very disingenuous."
"The only question is at what point do you stop it" — before or after a group is established, Rossman-Benjamin asked. "Fordham has to decide on that line by itself."
SJP — which claims some 200 affiliates in universities nationwide — has frequently attracted controversy for the tactics it employs on campus.
A report published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in November listed multiple instances of American Jewish students being targeted for "anti-Semitic vandalism, verbal attacks, and outright violence" by SJP members, and pointed to studies conducted by Brandeis University and the monitoring group AMCHA Initiative, which "found a correlation between the presence of SJP and a rise in campus anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism."
Jonathan Schanzer, vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank, said in congressional testimony in 2016 that American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) is "arguably the most important sponsor and organizer" for SJP. At least seven individuals affiliated with AMP "have worked for or on behalf of organizations previously shut down or held civilly liable in the United States for providing financial support to Hamas" — namely the Holy Land Foundation, Islamic Association for Palestine, and KindHearts, Schanzer said.
SJP's co-founder Hatem Bazian — a lecturer at the University of California, Berkeley — also serves as AMP's national chair. Bazian has recently come under fire for sharing images featuring Jewish caricatures alongside captions such as "Ashke-Nazi," which have been widely condemned as antisemitic. He has since apologized for the incident.