BY HANK REICHMAN
This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students, issued by the AAUP and other organizations. That statement spelled out clear guarantees of freedom of association for students. Those rights were called into question in December when Fordham University refused to permit students to create a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The denial culminated a protracted process, during which considerable pressure was apparently placed on the university to deny the request.
On behalf of the university Dean Keith Eldredge wrote on December 22:
After consultation with numerous faculty, staff and students and my own deliberation, I have decided to deny the request to form a club known as Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University. While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.
There is perhaps no more complex topic than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is a topic that often leads to polarization rather than dialogue. The purpose of the organization as stated in the proposed club constitution points toward that polarization. Specifically, the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.
The AAUP has long opposed academic boycotts and, in particular, the academic boycott of Israel promoted by the BDS movement, as inimical to academic freedom, although we take no position whatsoever on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself or on divestment, economic boycotts, or other sanctions. But the AAUP has also been clear that efforts to bar individuals or groups from advocating such a boycott are also inimical to academic freedom. More important, in this case it is nearly impossible not to conclude that the decision to deny students the right to affiliate with SJP constitutes a crystal clear case of viewpoint discrimination. Eldredge’s claim that he cannot support an organization of this sort is irrelevant — no one has asked for his support. Fordham administrators are free to oppose every position advocated by SJP or, for that matter, by any other group on campus. They should not, however, seek to impose their opposition on students or to use their personal views as a standard by which to judge the legitimacy of a student organization.
As the 1967 Joint Statement declared:
Students and student organizations should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them and to express opinions publicly and privately. They should always be free to support causes by orderly means that do not disrupt the regular and essential operations of the institution. At the same time, it should be made clear to the academic and larger community that in their public expressions or demonstrations students or student organizations speak only for themselves.
This was essentially the position argued in a lengthy and, in my view, convincing January 17 letter to the university from Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights.
“No one’s more polarizing than president-elect Trump, but Fordham did not ban the College Republicans,” said Palestine Legal staff attorney Radhika Sainath. “In singling out a group dedicated to Palestinian rights for censorship, Fordham makes a mockery of its supposed commitment to freedom of inquiry and critical thinking.” The letter noted other political and cultural groups at Fordham that are granted associational status including the Rainbow Alliance, Women in STEM and African-American, Asian-Pacific Islander, French, Greek, Irish, Italian, Korean, German, Latino, Polish and South Asian clubs.
Now Fordham has escalated its attack on student rights. The university has issued a disciplinary charge against a student active in trying to organize the SJP chapter, demanding a closed-door hearing with the dean who denied the group club status. The student, senior Sapphira Lurie, was charged with violating the school’s “Demonstration Policy” for organizing a January 23 rally protesting the decision to ban SJP from the school. Her hearing is scheduled for February 22. Under the policy Dean Eldredge, who made the decision to deny the group’s application for recognition and who lodged the charge against Lurie, will also conduct the hearing and render the verdict. In short, he has taken on himself the consolidated role of prosecutor, judge and jury.
“I feel like I’m being retaliated against because I challenged his decision and protested it in a public way,” said Lurie, a literature major. Eldredge has denied Lurie’s request to bring counsel, a faculty advisor, or any other person into the hearing. Requests for a neutral decision-maker were also denied.
The Fordham administration — which has also recently attacked the faculty’s shared governance system — should abandon these ill-considered assaults on its students’ freedom of association and speech.