Fordham University falters in trying to avoid controversy

All Americans cherish free speech in principle — not so much in practice, and perhaps particularly not when the subject is Palestine.

The controversy at Fordham University over its refusal to allow students to establish a Students for Justice in Palestine chapter appears to be a case in point.

Some background: In the fall of 2015, students at Fordham's Lincoln Center campus applied to gain club status for Students for Justice in Palestine. The university took an unusually long time to act on an application usually considered pro forma. It not only quizzed those seeking to establish the club about their motives and opinions, it also sought the opinions of Jewish students and faculty as to whether the group should be approved.

A year after the application was filed and after the student government approved it, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge took the unusual step of overruling the approval on the grounds that the group would "stir up controversy" and be "polarizing." In a letter sent to students seeking to start the group, Eldredge wrote that he could not 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."

Ahmad Awad, one of the students involved, said he was "blindsided" by the university's decision. "We went to pretty extreme lengths to do exactly what Fordham wanted," he said.

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As for Students for Justice in Palestine not being in line with the values and mission of the university, Awad said a group advocating for Palestinian human rights was very much in tune with Fordham's Catholic and Jesuit values. Biased coverage in the U.S. mainstream press means that Palestinians are rarely shown in a sympathetic light, said Mr. Awad, the son of a Palestinian father and Polish Catholic mother. He said the student applicants believed Fordham would be more than happy to allow Students for Justice in Palestine to offer educational programs presenting a Palestinian perspective.

Glenn Hendler, a professor of English who had agreed to act as faculty sponsor, said he, too, was surprised by the university's decision. He had had several conversations with Eldredge and had assured him that Students for Justice in Palestine was not anti-Semitic. Hendler, who is Jewish, said if he had thought the group was anti-Semitic he would never have agreed to act as faculty advisor.

Over 100 Fordham faculty members signed a petition in support of a student affiliated with Students for Justice in Palestine who faces disciplinary action for organizing an unauthorized protest against the decision to reject the group. Several community and civil rights groups, including a group of Catholic academics, clergy and religious, also penned a letter pointing out that the decision is inconsistent with the Gospels and Catholic social teaching; that the pope, the Vatican and the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops have all worked to support Palestinian rights; that Students for Justice in Palestine has been accepted at a number of other Catholic universities; and that the decision to ban it at Fordham raised questions about freedom of speech at the university.

At the end of April, after the administration refused multiple requests to meet with them, students filed a lawsuit against the university, claiming "viewpoint discrimination" and charging that the university violated its own policies on free speech and the formation of clubs. Representing them are the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal, a nonprofit founded in 2012 to support those who speak out in the United States on behalf of Palestinian human rights.

From 2014 to 2016, Palestine Legal reports, there were more than 650 attempts to squelch advocacy of Palestinian rights on U.S. campuses, some through false accusations of terrorism or anti-Semitism and others through harassment techniques such as the creation of bureaucratic obstacles. These are detailed in a report called "The Palestine Exception to Free Speech." Staff attorney Radhika Sainath said what makes the Fordham case unique is that it is the first incident she knows of where a university has summarily banned a student group supporting Palestinian rights. Most cases involve punishment for a student's words or actions after their occurrence. Palestine Legal sent an open letter to the president of Fordham, Jesuit Fr. Joseph McShane, that gives a timeline of the exchanges between Students for Justice in Palestine and the university.

"Here the students were not even given the opportunity to speak or to organize," Sainath said. "The school just said, 'No, we're not going to allow it,' and censored them before they were allowed to get out of the gate."

The attempts to suppress Palestinian advocacy at universities occur as rising student activism aimed at changing Israeli policies via the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions Movement is stirring a fierce counter-reaction from advocates for Israel. Nineteen state legislatures have passed laws penalizing companies for boycotting goods made in Israel or the Occupied West Bank, and universities are under increasing pressure from an array of pro-Israel advocacy groups to censor or punish pro-Palestinian activism. Universities' own interest in maintaining good relations with constituencies, especially donors, can lead them to see First Amendment rights as secondary.

It would hardly be surprising if Fordham, like other universities, sought to dodge an explosive issue by trying to curtail student activism. But even if you accept the university's reasons for denying the application at face value — that it believed S.J.P. was too divisive — you are forced to ask, "What is the alternative to debate, polarizing or otherwise?" There is none other than silence and acquiescence to the status quo. The university has yet to plausibly explain how stifling discussion of Palestinian human rights is anything other than an abdication of its mission as a university, and specifically one committed to Catholic values.

In making an effort to avoid controversy, Fordham has created it. The cost of this is both to academic freedom and to its own reputation.

[Margot Patterson is former NCR arts and opinion editor and is a contributor to America magazine.]


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