Civil rights attorney charged over “disruption” of Israeli speaker

University of Minnesota Law School leaders say protest against Israeli army “ethicist” was an attack on “free speech.” (Jeremy Yoder)

Minneapolis prosecutors are charging a civil rights attorney for allegedly disrupting an Israeli speaker at the University of Minnesota last year.

Emails obtained by The Electronic Intifada show that the trial of Jordan Kushner is proceeding after the Israeli government-funded group StandWithUs wrote to city attorneys urging them to ensure that “the individuals responsible for the illegal disruptions are prosecuted to the full extent of the law.”

The case against Kushner, who has previously defended Black Lives Matter activists, appears to be another example of heavy-handed prosecution being used to silence free speech critical of Israel.

“Fabricated charges”

When Kushner sat down to listen to Moshe Halbertal deliver a lecture at the University of Minnesota Law School on 3 November, he had no desire to interrupt the speaker.

Kushner, who has been involved in Palestine solidarity work, expected activists to disrupt the lecture by a man who helped draft the Israeli army’s “ethics code,” but was not planning to participate in the protest himself. He told The Electronic Intifada he wanted to hear what Halbertal had to say.

Before Halbertal began his lecture, which was titled “Protecting Civilians: Moral Challenges of Asymmetric Warfare,” approximately two dozen protesters entered the room carrying signs denouncing Israeli militarism.

After Halbertal was introduced by UMN professor Oren Gross, protesters stood up, one at a time, and called out various chants in support of Palestine, as this video, taken by another observer, shows.

When the campus police started removing the protesters, Kushner instinctively pulled out his own mobile phone to record what was happening. Kushner, a member of the National Lawyers Guild, said he has done legal observing at protests since he was a law student at the University of Minnesota.

But the city and police claim that Kushner was part of the disruption and continued yelling while police attempted to escort him out. The city is charging him with three misdemeanor counts, including trespassing, disorderly conduct and obstruction of the legal process.

The two other people who were arrested during the protest have both settled with the city.

But Kushner will not settle over what he says are fabricated charges to penalize him for recording the police, which several federal courts have upheld as a constitutional right.

Kushner told The Electronic Intifada he was asked to leave when he questioned a police officer who arbitrarily asked a woman who was sitting quietly to leave. Kushner noted that she was the only person of color near where he was sitting and he believed she was being racially profiled.

“I pointed out that she hadn’t done anything wrong or broken any rules,” Kushner recalled. The woman subsequently did take her turn to call out a statement from an index card. “Then they asked me to leave,” he added.

The officer then escorted him out of the lecture hall, threw him over a brick retaining wall and tightly bound his hands, Kushner said.

Kushner was taken to jail, where he remained until 2am. Kushner said that he does not know why the police asked him to leave, although he has a memo from the prosecutor stating that the police officer who arrested him recognized him from previous protests during which he wore a legal observer hat.

Kushner says that he has video and audio clips that refute allegations that he screamed or yelled in any disruptive way.

University reacts

The protest reportedly delayed Halbertal’s lecture by 40 minutes, but it was portrayed as an alarming threat to the freedom of speech that required a harsh response.

The following day, the dean of UMN Law School and the president and provost of the university sharply criticized the action in separate statements.

“As members of a university community … We should condemn any efforts to silence free speech,” David Wippman, dean of the UMN Law School, wrote.

Wippman lauded the campus police for handling the situation “with great professionalism and restraint.”

A spokesperson for the law school told The Electronic Intifada that they have been asked not to comment on the case. Wippman is now serving as a witness for the prosecution.

National and local editorials called for harsh disciplinary action to discourage similar protests.

In The Washington Post, Dale Carpenter, a professor of civil rights and liberties at UMN’s law school, argued that the university had an “obligation to investigate and punish” those who shouted down the speaker.

UNM professor Oren Gross wrote in the Star Tribune, “These acts of cultural hooliganism present a real threat to free speech and the free exchange of ideas.”

“It is also important to note that the protests at the Law School were not an isolated incident,” Gross claimed. “They are part of a campaign carried out on campuses across the country designed to intimidate Israel supporters and Jewish students and professors.”

Gross added that any failure to prosecute participants would “incentivize” hate speech and anti-Semitism.

StandWithUs role

The city attorney’s office has devoted an unusually large amount of its resources to prosecute what might otherwise have been a relatively minor misdemeanor case.

More than a month after the incident, police were still interviewing witnesses and the city appointed a second prosecutor to the case. In his 24 years of practicing law in Minneapolis, Kushner says this is the first time he has seen two prosecutors try a misdemeanor case.

“The investigation resembles more of a serious felony investigation, like a rape or murder, than a misdemeanor case,” Kushner told The Electronic Intifada.

Emails released during discovery reveal that the city attorney’s office was contacted by StandWithUs, the Israeli-government funded group, urging them to prosecute those arrested.

Copies of the emails are attached below this article, with redactions made or required by prosecutors.

Yael Mazar, the director of legal affairs with StandWithUs, emailed city prosecutor Sarah Becker on 25 November, encouraging tough action against the three persons arrested, including Kushner. Mazar provided the contact information of students she claimed witnessed the protest and are affiliated with StandWithUs.

“Our organization has a campus coordinator at the University of Minnesota who works with students,” Mazar wrote to Becker.

“These students felt deeply disturbed that the event they helped organized [sic] was disrupted and are eager to see that the individuals responsible for the illegal disruptions are prosecuted to the full extent of the law,” she added.

Becker responded to Mazar on the same day, but the response is redacted. A follow-up email from Mazar provides Becker with the name and contact information of a potential witness who is “happy to speak with you.”

Kushner has been informed that prosecutors have interviewed at least one witness provided by StandWithUs and intend to call him as a witness at trial.

In 2011, The Electronic Intifada revealed that StandWithUs, working closely with Israeli officials, was behind the lawsuit against the Olympia Food Co-op in Washington state over its boycott of Israeli products.

UMN’s chapter of Students for Justice for Palestine was also immediately targeted. According to the group’s president Rula Rashid, none of its members disrupted the lecture. Rashid says the group merely endorsed a general protest of Halbertal.

But StandWithUs and their campus affiliate, Students Supporting Israel, called for SJP to be punished. A complaint was filed with the school, according to Rashid, but eventually dismissed after further investigation.

Kushner, who succesfully represented Black Lives Matter organizers when the Mall of America sued them for protesting last year, says he doesn’t expect to be found guilty.

The maximum penalty he faces is 90 days in jail in addition to a $1,000 fine.

The city attorney’s office did not return a request for comment.

Editor’s note: this article has been corrected to state that the woman who was removed along with Kushner was the only person of color near where Kushner was sitting, as opposed to the only person of color in the room, as the article originally stated. The article has also been corrected to state that Kushner has practed law for 24 years, rather than 27.

Charlotte Silver is an independent journalist and regular writer for The Electronic Intifada.