Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters on the West Coast celebrate the U.S. Department of Education’s (DOE’s) dismissal of Title VI claims against three University of California schools, UC Berkeley, UC Santa Cruz, and UC Irvine, alleging that activism supportive of Palestinian human rights creates a hostile educational environment for Jewish students. These accusations were only the latest episode in a long series of attacks against Palestine solidarity activists that aim to intimidate, censor, and smear speech in support of Palestinian freedom and equality.
In an attempt to stifle Palestine solidarity activism, these Title VI complaints repeated the tired claim that supporting Palestinian human rights or voicing criticism of Israel’s policies is inherently anti-Semitic. As such, the Jewish community on campus was incorrectly portrayed as uniformly supportive of Israeli state policies in order to support the argument that pro-Palestine speech creates a hostile environment for the Jewish community. In fact, SJP chapters have a long track record of opposing all bigotry, including anti-Jewish bigotry, on campus.
We view this attempt to use the Civil Rights Act to limit students’ ability to speak out for the rights of oppressed groups as a perversion of the spirit of the law and the cause of equality and justice that undergirds it. We are pleased that the Department of Education dismissed all three cases, finding that the allegations either lacked merit or were examples of speech “that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.” These findings echo the department’s 2007 conclusions from UC Irvine, which stated that “speeches, articles, marches, symbols, and other events at issue were not based on the national origin of the Jewish students, but rather based on opposition to the policies of Israel.” The dismissals finally lift a threat that has been hanging over our universities since 2004, when the first complaint to the DOE was made against UC Irvine.
Such complaints, and the years-long DOE investigations, contributed to a devastating chilling effect on student activists and organizations, and led to unwarranted scrutiny of constitutionally protected speech by administrators worried about federal investigation. We welcome the dismissal, but hope that DOE will take steps to make sure that such investigations are handled more expeditiously in the future.
These dismissals represent the sixth major victory for SJP’s speech rights on campus in the 2012-2013 academic year:
- In 2012, Felber v. Yudof, a federal lawsuit filed on similar legal grounds, was settled out of court with no meaningful ramifications, after a federal judge ruled that the complained-of speech activities were constitutionally protected.
- Recommendations for broad censorship and monitoring of SJP speech made by the Campus Climate Advisory Council have also been effectively stopped.
- The UC Student Association (UCSA) voted overwhelmingly to condemn California Assembly Resolution HR-35, which endorsed the Campus Climate reports. The UC Berkeley Graduate Student Association and over 1,000 students and recent graduates joined the UCSA in opposing HR 35.
- Student senates at UC Berkeley, UC Davis, UC Santa Barbara, and UC Irvine, as well as the UCSA passed resolutions condemning Islamophobic and anti-Palestinian comments made about SJPs and Muslim Students Associations (MSA) by UCSC Lecturer Tammi Rossman-Benjamin.
- Sadia Saifuddin was confirmed to the position of UC Student Regent without opposition, despite efforts to stop the nomination based on her support for divestment.
While we do not expect that attempts to silence and intimidate SJPs will cease, we are confident that the anti-Palestinian groups that filed these claims can neither successfully silence us nor present the campus community with a viable argument for Israel’s policies of occupation and discrimination. We therefore reaffirm our commitment to speak out for justice in Palestine and will continue to work towards the day that the UC system cuts its financial ties to corporations that profit from the oppression of the Palestinian people.