NEW YORK — Nearly a hundred students and community members rallied on Fordham University’s Manhattan campus before marching to nearby Columbus Circle on Monday.
The protest marked the latest chapter in an ongoing effort by students at the Jesuit institution to found a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on their campus.
SJP organizations, which take their name from a still-existing student group founded at the University of California, Berkeley in 1993, already exist on over a hundred campuses in the United States, as well as several overseas.
A national organization using the same name organizes annual conferences attended by many of these loose affiliates, but maintains no formal relationship with them.
On Nov. 19, 2015, four students at Fordham applied with the university’s administration to register an SJP club at the school’s Lincoln Center campus.
By all accounts, they did not expect the grueling ordeal that lay before them.
Their plans finally ground to a halt on Dec. 22, 2016, when Keith Eldredge, dean of students at the Lincoln Center campus, informed several SJP activists in an email that he had overruled a vote by the school’s United Student Government to recognize the group a month earlier and denied it registration as a student organization.
“According to sources within student government, he has never even reviewed a club for veto, let alone actually vetoed one, in his entire ten years here at Fordham,” Sapphira Lurie, a senior and lead campus organizer for Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine, told MintPress News. “This is a clear example of the Palestine exception to free speech.”
“The Palestine exception,” a term popularized by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights in a 2015 report of that name, refers to barriers to free speech and organizing faced by Palestinian and solidarity activists in the US.
In a Jan. 17 statement on Fordham’s ban of SJP, Palestine Legal, a nonprofit organization that provides legal assistance and representation to Palestine activists, said it had responded to more than 600 attempts to repress their activities nationally since the start of 2014.
Of these, it said, “the vast majority” targeted students and faculty.
On campus, these efforts often include obstacles to student organizing, like challenges to event funding and space registration, or the unwarranted suspension of recognized groups, as well as the intimidation, and occasional termination, of faculty.
But Fordham’s preemptive ban of a student organization sets a dangerous new precedent, one students and other local activists are determined to fight.
“As far as we’re aware, this is the first time a college has summarily banned a group supporting Palestinian rights before students even held their first meeting,” Radhika Sainath, a Palestine Legal staff attorney and cooperating counsel at the CCR, told MintPress News.
‘Fordham breached its express promise’
Palestine Legal’s statement summarized a letter, sent by it and the CCR to Rev. Joseph M. McShane, S.J., Fordham’s president, on the same day.
When they filed their application, the letter said, “[T]he students expected Fordham would approve their group within a few weeks so that they could start their educational programming.”
Read Palestine Legal’s letter to Fordham’s president Rev. Joseph M. McShane:
Instead, they faced months of stonewalling, punctuated by meetings at which administrators asked if they would consider a different name, expressed concern at their support for the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement and use of the word “apartheid,” and inquired about their willingness to work with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street, and Seeds for Peace.
The administrators also inquired whether an anti-BDS resolution passed by the New York City Council or an executive order and blacklist opposing the movement issued by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, all last year, should preclude SJP’s recognition by the university.
As the USG decision on Nov. 17 neared, one administrator, Dorothy Wenzel of the university’s office of student leadership, who had previously admitted to polling Jewish faculty on whether SJP should be allowed to register at Fordham, instructed a USG officer to notify the school’s Jewish Student Organization of the pending vote.
The letter to Rev. McShane also presented the students’ case against Eldredge’s unprecedented decision to veto that vote, including a possible violation of the Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination “on the ground of race, color, or national origin” by institutions that, like Fordham, receive funding from the U.S. government.
The decision breached “free speech and association principles [and] the university’s commitment to protect free inquiry,” Palestine Legal and the CCR charged.
Despite Fordham’s status as a private, religious institution, legal measures can still force it to follow these academic standards, the students’ attorney told MintPress.
“Fordham guarantees, in at least a half-dozen places on its website, freedom of expression and association on campus,” Sainath, who is advising the school’s SJP activists, said. “Students come to Fordham with the expectation that they can get involved with student groups and advocate for justice and human rights.”
“By banning SJP, Fordham breached its express promise to respect free speech principles,” she added. “Students could sue under a breach of contract claim.”
‘I am confident that we will win’
Bob Howe, a special advisor to Fordham’s president and senior director of communications for the university, seemed to bolster these charges with his attempts to defuse others.
“Fordham has no registered student clubs the sole focus of which is the political agenda of one nation, against another nation,” he told MintPress in a prepared statement. “For the university’s purposes, the country of origin of the student organizers is irrelevant, as is their particular political stance.”
“The narrowness of Students for Justice in Palestine’s political focus makes it more akin to a lobbying group than a student club,” the statement continued. “Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty, and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue.”
Despite their lack of the resources and services afforded to recognized student organizations, SJP activists are pressing forward, holding regular meetings on campus to plan the next steps in their campaign to secure registration with the university, as well as an apology and affirmation of the school’s commitment to free speech and the equal treatment of its students.
Beyond Monday’s protest, which speakers at the rally promised to follow with more, supportive groups like NYC Students for Justice in Palestine and the U.S. Campaign for Palestinian Rights have circulated petitions, while Jewish Voice for Peace prepared one specifically for faculty.
“We will build a movement at Fordham against racism and colonialism, and there is nothing the administration can do to intimidate us or stop us,” Lurie said. “I am confident that Fordham SJP will carry this momentum forward, and ultimately, I am confident that we will win.”
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