USACBI Open Letter to Fordham University on Repression of Student Speech

Dear President McShane, Vice President Gray, Provost Freedman, and Dean Eldredge:

We write this open letter to condemn your repression of students’ free speech at Fordham University. By denying organizational status to Students for Justice in Palestine, and then singling out one student for disciplinary action, you contribute to the systemic silencing of, casting unwarranted aspersions on–and indeed criminalizing of– students who support the struggle for justice in Palestine. This repression is all the more worrisome in that it actively colludes with the larger attacks on freedom of expression under our new US president.

Stifling free speech on campus, especially when the issue of justice for Palestine is concerned, persists in spite of Fordham’s social justice mission. Dean Eldredge’s denial of official group status to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), after the formation of the group was approved by the Fordham United Student Government (USG), is a particularly egregious example of this.

In opposing students’ rights to participate in a human rights organization, Fordham University administration has targeted a bright and engaged student, Sapphira Lurie, who believes that her Jesuit college education should train her to be a politically active, conscientious citizen of the world, free and safe to speak her mind. Instead, she finds herself battling institutional suppression of her right to free speech and civil rights.

The larger issue here, in addition to the vindictive retaliation against Lurie, concerns the administration’s refusal to allow an SJP chapter after it received approval from the student government. As Palestine Legal has explained in their letter to you, President McShane, when Fordham censored SJP, it violated free speech and academic freedom guarantees. Specifically, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights have noted that “All evidence indicates that the denial [of SJP recognition at Fordham] was based on the viewpoint of students’ message and/or their national origin.”

Palestine Legal adds this explanation: “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.”

Acting in flagrant violation of students’ legal protections rightly erodes Fordham’s reputation. On February 22nd, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education posted its 2017 ranking of “The 10 Worst Colleges For Free Speech.” The report notes that few universities are as “persistent and brazen” as Fordham University in imposing “viewpoint-discriminatory justifications for rejecting student groups’ applications to become officially recognized.”

As organizers for the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel, we particularly would like to address the university’s “justification” for denying club status to SJP. We take issue with Dean Eldredge’s statement, “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.” If by these goals you mean those of BDS, how can they “conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University,” when they clearly call for Israel to abide by international and human rights law? SJP chapters, like USACBI, direct their efforts towards following the Palestinian-led call to ask the international community to exert pressure upon Israel to comply with international law. At the foundation of these organizations is a respect for human rights. Dean Eldredge also asserts, “There is perhaps no more complex topic than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is a topic that often leads to polarization rather than dialogue. The purpose of the organization as stated in the proposed club constitution points toward that polarization. Specifically, the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.” This is a mischaracterization of SJP chapters, which have extremely diverse membership, and of BDS, which hinges on solidarity, not divisiveness. As to productive dialogue, it is only possible by insisting on human rights for all, which does not conceal the unequal conditions of engagement–with states and university administrators pitted against student leaders.

Indeed, your stated university mission and values mean indicate that you should support students who are working to oppose violations of human rights and international law, and who are heeding the call of a people struggling to end decades of occupation, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing. If the solutions to the situation in Israel/Palestine are complex, the violations themselves are clear-cut. To begin with an acknowledgment of these violations is only polarizing for those who seek to support Israel and Zionism at any price.

Furthermore, it is not anti-Semitic to criticize Israel and to support Palestinian rights. The university spokesperson who claimed that “The decision not to register a Fordham chapter of SJP … was based upon the number of anti-Semitic incidents by the national organization reported in national media” makes this charge without substantiation. Worse yet, such a statement relies upon, and thus legitimates and furthers the work of blacklisting sites such as Canary Mission, that slander students, labeling them as anti-Semitic or terrorist-sympathizers purely on the basis of their solidarity with Palestine. As Palestine Legal has demonstrated, students who regularly experience discrimination and harassment are in fact those who commit to Palestine solidarity work, most especially those who are Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian. We would also note that SJP chapters and USACBI include anti-Zionist Jews as members.

Along with attorneys from Palestine Legal, we urge you to reverse the discriminatory denial of organizational status to the Students for Justice in Palestine group. We also call upon you to apologize for the unwarranted reprimand of Sapphira Lurie. The university should be encouraging, not repressing, students as they engage in critical thinking, and in exercising their free speech in support of human rights. It is all the more incumbent upon you to uphold democratic practices and policies at a time when they are so obviously under threat.

The US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel (USACBI) Organizing Collective

Photo: Joe Catron

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