A judge in Pennsylvania has tossed out most of an Israel lobby-backed lawsuit against Park Point University that claimed that a professor had created a hostile work environment due to his – and his students’ – support for Palestinian rights.
The lawsuit was filed in 2019 by Channa Newman, a professor at the university, who claimed that she was a target of anti-Semitism due to her Zionist beliefs.
Newman’s lawsuit alleged that Robert Ross, who teaches literary arts and social justice studies at Point Park, used his position to foster “a militant version” of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and “hateful views against Israel” that “are anti-Semitic.”
Ross once contributed to The Electronic Intifada.
His colleague, J. Dwight Hines, was also named in Newman’s lawsuit as Ross’ supporter.
Newman alleged that their political views, and those of their students, led to a hostile work environment for her.
Her lawsuit cited the US State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism.
Like the very similar International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition that is promoted by Israel and its lobby, the State Department definition includes claims that it is anti-Semitic to say Israel’s foundation was a “racist endeavor” or to apply “double standards” to Israel by requiring from it “behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
The Lawfare Project is an Israel lobby group that uses lawsuits to harass supporters of Palestinian rights.
Its director, Brooke Goldstein, is a Zionist extremist who once claimed at a conference in New York City that “there’s no such thing as a Palestinian person.” She was objecting to the use of the word “Palestinian” by some conference participants.
In addition to the spurious claims against Ross and Hines, Newman’s lawsuit was also filed in response to a Title IX investigation into her conduct by the university.
Title IX is a federal civil rights law that protects against discrimination and harassment on the basis of sex in educational institutions.
In 2018, Newman was accused of disparaging the anti-sexual assault #MeToo movement during a conversation in class with a student who revealed that she had been raped.
In his 31 March decision, the judge dismissed Newman’s claims that Ross, Hines and their students had created a hostile work environment due to their political opinions.
But the judge did find that if Newman can prove that she was treated differently or faced retaliation during the Title IX investigation, it would be a violation of her rights.
Her legal team has indicated that she is moving forward with a trial case over those claims.
Newman and the university resolved the initial case through mediation on 7 July. The details of the mediation were not disclosed.
In his ruling, the judge asserted that if the court accepted Newman’s allegations, it would “invalidate” on its face and on civil rights grounds “an entire academic and public debate” and that it would give Newman “a veto over others engaging in that same debate.”
The judge added that doing so “would effectively compel, under the pain of Title VII liability, that any speech and viewpoints held and espoused by others as part of that debate and that are contrary” to Newman’s own point of view “be reformulated to be consistent” with her views on such topics.
“I am relieved and thrilled,” Ross told The Electronic Intifada.
“The judge took the time to articulate why he’s not granting this work environment claim and that there’s nothing inherently hostile with [advocating for] BDS. In these times, we’ll take what we can get. I think it’s a victory,” he explained.
“The judge, to me, made it clear that there’s nothing legally wrong with teaching BDS, participating in BDS, or advocating for it.”
The dismissal of the hostile work environment claims, Ross added, “should be empowering, it should be a green light for other folks to engage in this movement.”
A critical precedent
Ross said that the lawsuit’s dismissal sets a critical precedent for other academics and students who are fighting relentless smear campaigns by anti-Palestinian groups.
It is a common trope promoted by Israel lobby organizations to claim that supporting Palestinian rights is tantamount to anti-Jewish bigotry. The claim is solely aimed at silencing and disrupting activism.
After the right-wing Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle published a story in April repeating Newman’s false claims against Ross, his colleagues and students, Ross said he received a death threat.
“It was a handwritten letter,” he told The Electronic Intifada.
But he said he recognized that both these types of threats and the Lawfare Project’s participation in the lawsuit “are intended to scare people away from doing very basic things like participating in an academic boycott, or advocating for divestment, or just teaching settler-colonialism in Palestine – not radical things.”
The threats, he noted, “are not going to stop me, they’re not going to scare me, but I would not blame anyone for getting intimidated by something like this – especially for someone who doesn’t have the [institutional] privileges that I have.”
With support from organizations like Palestine Legal and others in the Palestine solidarity movement, Ross said there is a strong network that his colleagues can rely on if they are under similar attacks.
“My advice is to know that you’re not doing this alone. Reaching out is where there’s strength.”