Posted by Curt on 27 April, 2017 at 3:31 pm. 1 comment.


Jesse Singal:

These days, the debate over free speech on campus centers largely on loud, chaotic incidents like the riots at UC Berkeley in response to Milo Yiannopoulos’s planned talk, or the smaller but also violent incident at Middlebury College sparked by Charles Murray’s visit there. It’s understandable why events like this garner so much media attention, but, in reality, there are a host of other free-speech issues on college campuses that are far quieter, and which don’t always follow the usual, oft-condemned, “The left is trying to shut down the right!” script. That doesn’t mean they’re less important.

Take, for example, a lawsuit announced yesterday by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, legal organizations that deal with progressive issues and with Palestinian advocacy, respectively. Those two organizations are helping a group of Fordham University students sue the school over its protracted attempts to delay and then kibosh the creation of a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, a pro-Palestinian civil-rights and advocacy group. The case is a useful reminder of the arbitrary, discriminatory speech standards that can take hold when free-speech norms erode in a given community — or, in the case of Fordham, were never that strong in the first place.

Since November 2015, reads the petition filed yesterday, Ahmad Awad, currently a senior, and a group of other students have been trying to set up a Fordham chapter of SJP. Awad has two Palestinian grandparents, the document notes, as well as another grandparent who survived a Nazi labor camp. Despite the fact that registering a new club at Fordham is supposed to be a relatively pro forma process, the complaint and the accompanying press release describe a bureaucratic ordeal stretching out over the span of two academic years in which Fordham administrators repeatedly delayed the creation of the group, peppered Awad and his friends with the sorts of questions that the heads of other student groups aren’t typically required to answer, and, eventually, after the students had jumped through all the requisite bureaucratic hoops and gotten approval from Fordham’s student government, simply cancelled the group out of existence.

The press release runs down the basic history of this controversy:

SJP applied for club status in 2015 and intended to organize educational events on Fordham’s Lincoln Center campus about Palestinian human rights. While the application was pending, administrators expressed concern that SJP’s presence would “stir up controversy,” consulted Jewish faculty and students on whether SJP should be approved, and repeatedly delayed a decision on the application. A year after the application was filed, the student government approved recognition of SJP as a student club. Fordham’s Dean of Students, Keith Eldredge, then took the unprecedented step of overruling that decision and denying the request because, he stated, approving SJP would lead to “polarization,” and that the call for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) “presents a barrier to open dialogue.”

And here, from the petition, is a snippet of the letter Eldredge sent the SJP students:

After consultation with numerous faculty, staff and students and my own deliberation, I have decided to deny the request to form a club known as Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University. 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 very specific group,and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.

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…

When one student asked Eldredge whether his decision could be appealed, Eldredge wrote back that no, it couldn’t. Shortly after that, the lawyers got involved. A student also faced disciplinary proceedings for peacefully protesting Eldredge’s decision, noted the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education in February — when it named Fordham one of the worst ten schools for free speech in the U.S. as a result of this episode. But this is far from an outlying event at Fordham, a Jesuit institution which has over the years faced controversies over its free-expression policies on issues ranging from condom distribution to its lack of a “free speech zone” for students to protest without consequence.

Now, this isn’t a pure First Amendment case, because Fordham is a private university — Awad and his friends are suing based on the claim that Fordham violated its own free-speech and student-organization policies, not that the U.S. Constitution was violated. But this case is a very useful reminder of what happens when speech claims are adjudicated — or, in this case, given the lawsuit, are attempted to be adjudicated — on the basis of subjective terms that mean different things to different people. Take Eldredge’s note: Who decides what is and isn’t “polarizing”? Who decides which countries can and can’t be criticized, and why? Who decides which views are and aren’t a “barrier to open dialogue”?

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