University Must Recognize pro-BDS Group, New York Court Rules

Fordham University 'did not abide by its own published rules governing the approval and recognition of student clubs' and its own rules don't include any reference to whether an organization is 'polarizing,' judge says

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File photo: BDS protest against Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concert in New York, February 3, 2019.
File photo: BDS protest against Israel Philharmonic Orchestra concert in New York, February 3, 2019.Credit: Gili Getz

WASHINGTON — A New York judge has ruled that Fordham University must recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine as a university-sanctioned club, and that the university’s 2016 decision not to do so did not abide by its own rules.

The university said after the ruling Tuesday that it will review the result and decide on how to proceed.

The lawsuit was filed in 2017, after the university refused to recognize the SJP chapter as a student club despite a vote by the university’s student government that approved such a status for the organization.

SJP promotes the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and has chapters at dozens of universities. It has advocated for resolutions calling to boycott Israel and divest from it economically in multiple universities across the United States.

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After Fordham’s student government voted to accept the local SJP chapter as a university club in 2016, the dean of students published a letter rejecting the decision. The reason given was that “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.”

The letter also specifically addressed SJP’s support for BDS, stating: “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 towards that polarization — specifically, the call for boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel, presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.”

A group of students sued the university in April 2017, claiming the university’s rejection of the SJP chapter was discriminatory and opposed its own guidelines.

Justice Nancy M. Bannon ruled Tuesday that Fordham “did not abide by its own published rules governing the approval and recognition of student clubs,” and that the university’s own rules do not include any reference to whether or not an organization is “polarizing.”

Part of Bannon’s decision deals with the question of SJP’s hostile approach to Israel. The dean of students, she wrote, “does not provide a rational basis for concluding that SJP might encourage violence, disruption of the university, suppression of speech, or any sort of discrimination against any member of the Fordham community based on religion, race, sex or ethnicity. His only articulated concern was that SJP singled out one particular country for criticism and boycott. Again, this is not an established ground for denying recognition to a student club.”

Bannon also wrote that if such a rule were to be applied to SJP, it could later “be applied to students protesting or criticizing China’s occupation and annexation of Tibet, Russia’s occupation of Crimea or Iraq’s one-time occupation of Kuwait.”

Her decision was hailed as a victory by the Center for Constitutional Rights, which represented the students. The organization’s deputy legal director, Maria LaHood, said Tuesday that “the students’ support for Palestinian rights and their demand to freely express that support truly exemplify Fordham’s stated values, unlike the administration’s shameful actions here.”

Following the ruling, Alan Levine — a lawyer who was a cooperating counsel for the lawsuit — said that “Fordham abandoned its obligation to foster critical points of view on matters of public concern. Justice Bannon’s principled decision reasserts the judiciary’s role to ensure that voices of marginalized communities will be heard. Nothing could be more important at this moment.”