Court Orders Recognition of Pro-Palestinian Student Group

Judge overturns Fordham University's decision to deny recognition to Students for Justice in Palestine chapter due to concerns about its political agenda and the potential for polarization.

August 7, 2019
 

A New York State judge has ordered Fordham University to recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine as a university-sanctioned club after the dean of students, Keith Eldredge, rejected the student group’s petition for recognition based on its political agenda.

“Since there is nothing in the record of Dean Keith Eldridge’s determination supporting his authority to reject an application of a student club because it criticized the policies of only one nation, the determination must be annulled as arbitrary and capricious,” Justice Nancy M. Bannon wrote in a July 29 decision ordering the private Jesuit university to recognize the group.

The order comes more than two years after students filed suit opposing Fordham's decision to deny the group recognition. In a Dec. 22, 2016, email, Eldredge, the dean of students at Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus, based the denial in part on the potential for the group to be polarizing.

Students for Justice in Palestine chapters at other colleges have hosted controversial events and programs such as those marking "Israeli Apartheid Week," and they have been heavily involved in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. The Anti-Defamation League, a pro-Israel group that opposes anti-Semitism, states in a profile of SJP on its website that chapters of the group "disseminate anti-Israel propaganda often laced with inflammatory and at times combative rhetoric" and that they "regularly demonize Jewish students who identify as Zionists or proud supporters of the State of Israel."

“While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, 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.

“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,” Eldredge continued. “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.”

Justice Bannon found that Fordham did not in this case follow its published rules regarding the recognition of student organizations in that it seemingly imposed an additional level of review by the dean after the group was approved by the United Student Government. Further, she wrote that the dean’s discretion to veto a club proposal “is neither unlimited nor unfettered.”

“The issue of whether a club’s political message may be polarizing is not enumerated or identified as a relevant factor in any governing or operating rules, regulations or guidelines issued by Fordham, and appears to have been arbitrarily considered by Dean Eldredge after input from others who are critical of SJP’s political beliefs. Importantly, consideration of whether a group’s message may be polarizing is contrary to the notion that universities should be centers of discussion of contested issues.”

Justice Bannon wrote that Fordham’s status as a private university did not merit dismissal of the students’ challenge. “Although Fordham is not a public university, and thus not expressly subject to First Amendment limitations on its right to restrict opinions that might be controversial or unpopular … Fordham’s own rules, regulations and guidelines do not empower the dean of students to restrict the university’s recognition of a student club based on its potential for raising issues or taking political positions that might be controversial or unpopular with a segment of the university community.” The justice cited Fordham’s mission statement, which references freedom of inquiry and critical thinking, among other values.

A Fordham spokesman, Bob Howe, declined a request to interview Eldredge. “Fordham University is committed to serving all of its students and their interests both in and out of the classroom,” Howe said via email. “The university is reviewing the court’s decision before deciding on a way forward.”

“We are thrilled that students at Fordham will finally be able to form a Students for Justice in Palestine club,” said Maria LaHood, the deputy legal director for the Center for Constitutional Rights, one of the organizations that represented the students in the lawsuit. “The students’ support for Palestinian rights and their demand to freely express that support truly exemplify Fordham’s stated values, unlike the administration’s shameful actions here.”

“The administration unfairly hindered my and my fellow classmates’ abilities to advocate for the human rights of Palestinians,” Ahmad Awad, one of the students who filed suit and the would-be president of the proposed Fordham SJP chapter, said in a statement. Awad graduated from Fordham in 2017.

"Although over 1,000 days have passed since we initiated the process for club status, I did not give up on my fight for human rights and free speech."

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