Suit Seeks Recognition for Pro-Palestinian Group

April 27, 2017

Four students are suing Fordham University for refusing to recognize a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter. The lawsuit, filed in New York State’s Supreme Court, argues that in denying recognition to the SJP chapter because of administrators’ stated concerns about “polarization” on campus and the group’s perceived connections with the national SJP organization and chapters on other campuses, “Fordham violated its own policies and rules protecting free speech and the expression of controversial ideas.”

A Dec. 22 email from a Fordham dean, Keith Eldredge, denying official recognition to the proposed SJP chapter cites the potential for polarization and describes the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel as “a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”

“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.

The lawsuit filed by the students seeks a court judgment directing the university to officially recognize an SJP club on campus and “declaring that Fordham violated its policies and procedures” in its decision making.

In a statement, Fordham, a Jesuit institution, said its decision to deny recognition to the SJP chapter “was based upon behavior of the national organization and other SJP chapters reported in the news media that, if true, are not in keeping with Fordham’s values.”

“While Fordham officials aren't in a position to know the truth of these reports, taken as a whole the university believed that a student club bearing that name is not in the bests [sic] interests of our students on either side of the debate, or would serve to foster reasoned discussion on these very difficult issues,” the statement says. Fordham says it told the students it will recognize the organization if they agree to change the name and modify the proposed club constitution “to more accurately reflect the lack of control by the national organization or chapters of SJP, which the students have already represented to be the case.”

Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney for Palestine Legal, one of the organizations involved in representing the students, disputed this. "Fordham delayed and questioned the students for more than a year, never offering to grant recognition if the students would change the name. Fordham administrators refused requests for an appeal of the decision to ban SJP and refused repeated requests to talk with the students about this decision," she said via email.

“That said, even if they had made such an offer, the students would have rejected it. While the club would be independent from the national and other campus SJPs, which the students repeatedly conveyed and even wrote into their constitution, the name SJP conveys the fact that the students are part of a nationwide movement on college campuses for Palestinian rights. They support that movement and want to make that clear in the club's name.”

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