The Graduate Students Association at UCLA in California has put stipulations on funding for student groups based on affiliation with Palestinian rights activism.
Students and civil rights organizations are concerned that such conditions are the result of overt willingness by University of California’s top officials to exceptionalize free speech rights and threaten punishment against student activists.
In mid-October, the president of UCLA’s Graduate Students Association sent an email to a student group that was seeking funding for a diversity caucus event. The association represents thousands of UCLA’s graduate students and provides resources, including funding, to graduate students and organizations. Members pay mandatory fees each academic quarter.
The association’s president informed the group that “GSA leadership has a zero engagement/endorsement policy towards Divest from Israel or any related movement/organization” (emphasis in original) and awarded the group $2,000 in funding based on their “zero connection” to a “Divest from Israel” group.
UCLA does not have an organization or movement specifically called “Divest from Israel,” but the president was most likely referring to the graduate student workers’ union across the University of California system, UAW Local 2865, which passed a historic divestment resolution one year ago.
In addition to UAW 2865’s successful divestment vote, student governments at seven out of nine University of California undergraduate campuses — including at UCLA in 2014 — have passed resolutions calling for the administration to pull investments from US and international companies profiting from Israel’s violations of Palestinians’ rights.
Despite an expensive public relations campaign waged by anti-Palestinian groups, UCLA’s divestment resolution passed by a landslide vote and was supported by more than 30 student organizations.
A week after the Graduate Students Association’s president, Milan Chatterjee, publicly placed restrictions on funding, the group voted to implement a “neutrality clause” on speech related to “Israel-Palestine.” The clause was not discussed in cabinet meetings, according to a representative member of the GSA who recently resigned in protest.
“Under this resolution, the UCLA GSA — as a governing body — will abstain from taking any stances or engaging in any discussion in regards to Israel-Palestine politics,” the clause states.
Mohannad Ghawanmeh resigned from the association on 30 November in protest of the “neutrality clause,” labeling it as a “duplicitous, disingenuous resolution that cannot be rehabilitated in any form.”
He also said that Chatterjee’s “recent duplicitous actions are inexcusable and signify the need to check the powers of the GSA president.”
Chatterjee, meanwhile, has maintained that his directives are in the spirit of “neutrality” and are ways to “avoid the potentially controversial and divisive topic of Israel/Palestine relations.”
Implicitly condoning actions
Yacoub Kureh, president of UCLA’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter, told The Electronic Intifada that because the university administration hasn’t taken any action since Chatterjee’s funding conditions were made public, “it seems like they’re implicitly condoning this … by not stepping in or saying anything.”
Lawyers with Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights and the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter last month to UCLA administrators demanding Chatterjee immediately rescind the conditions he has placed on student groups’ funding.
In a public post on Facebook on 21 November, three days after the letter was sent to UCLA, Chatterjee accused Students for Justice in Palestine of “engaging in a smear campaign, mischaracterizing my neutrality position on the Divest from Israel issue. This is leading to unnecessary defamation.” He added that he has filed a legal complaint with the UCLA administration.
Last week, major Israel-aligned groups including StandWithUs, the Zionist Organization of America, the Lawfare Project and the American Center for Law and Justice — which was co-founded by right-wing evangelical Christian Zionist Pat Robertson — have jumped in to protect the GSA and Chatterjee’s position. The groups dismissed legal assertions that the association and its president are violating the First Amendment.
Such groups have been at the forefront of pressuring the University of California to punish Palestine rights-based activism on campuses, while linking criticism of Israeli policy with anti-Semitism and smearing students who are involved in Palestine solidarity organizing.
A spokesperson for UCLA emailed a statement to The Electronic Intifada on Friday saying that the university is looking into the allegations of possible First Amendment violations made by the Graduate Students Association.
“There are no university policies restricting funding of events based on political opinion or ideology,” the statement adds. “Any stipulation that infringes on the free expression of ideas is contrary to UCLA’s values of free speech and academic freedom.”
But such platitudes on the protection of free speech on UC campuses ring hollow given the inaction on the association’s position up to this point — and the heightened climate of repression against Palestine rights-based speech and activism sanctified by the top levels of the UC administration.
Just in the last few months, UC Regent Richard Blum openly threatened to suspend or expel students who engage in speech critical of Israel.
UCLA students in particular have been falsely accused of anti-Semitism by right-wing pro-Israel groups. The university’s chancellor has largely ignored the concerns of student Palestine activists at the receiving end of such smear campaigns and harassment, says Palestine Legal.
And in 2014, the Los Angeles City Council threatened to refer Palestine activists to police after Students for Justice in Palestine asked student government representatives not to take paid propaganda trips to Israel.
Liz Jackson, staff attorney with Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told The Electronic Intifada that it is precisely within this climate of repression that such violations of free speech are allowed to proliferate and become normalized. “When the Regents express support for branding criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic, they invite well-meaning university officials to violate student speech rights,” she said.
This latest incident at UCLA, Jackson added, is a classic example of the Palestine exception to free speech.
Kureh said he was concerned that the situation at UCLA is a mere foreshadowing of what’s to come if the University of California maintains this Palestine exception.
“Certain speech is just going to be prohibited on campus when it pertains to Palestine activism,” he said. “It’s not a matter of the [Graduate Students Association] saying ‘we don’t like BDS,’ it’s a matter of them saying ‘we’re not going to fund you. You pay mandatory student fees but your viewpoints are disallowed.’”
Kureh explained that the current and expanding climate of repression based on speech has had a direct chilling effect on students, especially those who are Palestinian.
Some members of Students for Justice in Palestine — and even other student groups that are not associated with Palestine at all — have resigned following targeted smear campaigns by an online group or the general campus-based level of harassment, he said.
“It’s a pretty bad situation for Palestinians,” he said. “We continue to be harassed either by outside organizations or bullied by internal organizations. [However,] it’s had a chilling effect [not just] on Palestinians, but on activists in general.”