New York students ask court to end ban on Palestine club

Students are fighting the Fordham University administration in court and in the streets over its decision to ban Students for Justice in Palestine. (Fordham SJP Facebook)

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.

In June, the university tried to block the students’ lawsuit, prompting students to file a motion weeks later in opposition.

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.”

“Last resort”

“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.




Get Eldredge on the witness stand, and this thing will be over in an hour. It's a rank case of political discrimination and denial of First Amendment rights. My guess is they'll settle to avoid just such a public humiliation.

Incidentally, a strapline at Fordham's website proclaims, "Faith and Hope/The Campaign for Financial Aid". It's a pitch to wealthy donors. The homepage is largely devoted to promoting the prestige of Michael Bloomberg and his like-minded corporate colleagues. In fact, the whole setup appears to be a single-minded expression of the thrilling beauty of money. In that kind of atmosphere, one characterised by fetid managerial greed, you're not going to find much solidarity with powerless elements such as Palestinian teachers, students, farmers and the like. All the more reason why this chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine is needed.

Nora Barrows-Friedman

Nora Barrows-Friedman's picture

Nora Barrows-Friedman is a staff writer and associate editor at The Electronic Intifada, and is the author of In Our Power: US Students Organize for Justice in Palestine (Just World Books, 2014).