Students at Fordham University in New York have taken a new step in a legal battle to lift a ban on a Palestine solidarity group.
In a lawsuit filed with the New York state supreme court, activists at the Jesuit college are demanding that it overturn a unilateral decision by the dean of students, Keith Eldredge, to ban Students for Justice in Palestine in December 2016.
His decision, which students and lawyers say was based on the students’ political views, vetoed the student government’s approval of an SJP chapter a month earlier.
During the year-long application process, students seeking to found the club were questioned repeatedly about their personal political opinions, affiliations with outside human rights and Jewish organizations and their views on the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.
Students sued the university in April of this year, alleging that the private university violates its own free expression policies and is engaged in viewpoint discrimination.
The new order, which was filed in early November, seeks to force the university to recognize SJP as an official club. It also asks the court to allow the students’ legal team to gather testimonies from Eldredge and other administrators, and to have administrators disclose documents, including emails and notes, related to their decision to deny SJP its club status.
Unless the court overturns the ban, students will graduate “before their right to advocate for Palestinian human rights on campus can be vindicated,” states Palestine Legal, a firm which is representing the students along with the Center for Constitutional Rights.
Prevented from making flyers
While the SJP chapter is banned, students cannot organize speaking events, reserve meeting spaces, distribute or post materials or solicit potential members through group fairs, the legal group adds.
“We’ve been fighting so hard to become a club,” student Julie Norris told The Electronic Intifada. “All we’re trying to do is be able to invite a speaker to campus, or make a flyer.”
The court filing reasserts that the Fordham administration’s veto of the student government’s approval of SJP was “arbitrary and capricious,” say the attorneys.
The university has attempted to justify its ban on the club by claiming that SJP’s existence could lead to “disruptive” conduct.
Fordham “disregarded evidence” that countered these claims, the attorneys say, “instead basing its decision on materials from individuals hostile to SJP’s views.”
“Filing a lawsuit is definitely a last resort,” attorney Radhika Sainath of Palestine Legal told The Electronic Intifada.
Students would much rather “go forward and be organizers and activists and put on their educational programming. No one wants to be in court,” she said. “But Fordham gave these students no choice.”
Sainath explained that the legal filings send a strong message to the Fordham authorities to show that they cannot violate their own rules just because they don’t like the message of students’ speech, and to other universities considering similar measures against SJP chapters.
“Students supporting Palestinians’ rights are going to take their rights seriously and they’re going to enforce them in court if their rights are violated,” Sainath said.
Norris said that despite the legal hurdles, the students remain optimistic. “I think about the way that Palestinians have had to have that optimistic spirit for so long – where they know that Palestine will be free eventually and they’re not giving that up for anything,” she said.
“No matter how many classes of students it takes, we’re going to eventually win. If the majority of us have graduated or not, we will make it.”
A hearing on the court order is set for early January.