Pooh-Poohing Gaza Boat Didn’t Trample Speech

     (CN) – Rutgers University should not face First Amendment claims over its refusal to send thousands of dollars raised by a student group to the U.S. Boat to Gaza, a federal judge ruled.
     The 2012 complaint stems from a fundraiser held on Nov. 4, 2010, by Belief Awareness Knowledge Activism: Students United for Middle Eastern Justice (BAKA), a group at Rutgers University now known as Students for Justice in Palestine.
     Though the event’s organizers originally intended to send proceeds from the event to U.S. Boat to Gaza, Rutgers shot the idea down because of concerns that it would be unlawfully providing material assistance to a foreign terrorist organization.
     The boat’s supporters claimed, however, that Rutgers was bowing to pressure Jewish advocacy groups, including the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel, which claimed the intended recipient criticized Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza.
     At the event, which allegedly drew a crowd of 250, the student group announced it might select an alternative beneficiary and that any donor dissatisfied their choice could seek a refund, according to the complaint.
     In May 2011, the student group selected the WESPAC Foundation as their alternative beneficiary for the $3,050 raised, but Rutgers allegedly never delivered the funds after WESPAC indicated that the money would support criticism of the Israeli government.
     Rutgers said it became of infirmities with regard to WESPAC’s relationship to alleged illegal activities. Though it had mailed a check to WESPAC, it stopped payment when it learned that WESPAC planned to engage in what Rutgers identified as potentially unlawful activity.
     Ultimately, the Rutgers sent the funds to America Near East Refugee Aid (ANERA).
     Two activists who support the Boat to Gaza, Rutgers professor Larry Romsted and Iran-born human rights activist Manijeh Saba, sued the university, president Richard McCormick, the board of trustees, and the board of governors of Rutgers in September 2012.
     They asked the court to order Rutgers to recoup the funds from ANERA and give them to WESPAC, as well as enjoin the defendants from transferring or disposing of the proceeds, engaging in future viewpoint discrimination against pro-Palestinian causes, and depriving the plaintiffs of their liberties or retaliating against them.
     U.S. District Judge Michael Shipp dismissed the complaint July 31, tossing aside claims that the donations were political spending “at the core of [our] First Amendment freedoms,” and that Rutgers engages in viewpoint discrimination by allowing funds to be distributed only for “lawful purposes.”
     Finding that the money at issue “is not, and never was, the plaintiffs’ property,” the court brushed aside the claim that Rutgers restricted their speech.
     “While plaintiffs challenge whether or not ANERA was freely chosen as the beneficiary, it is uncontested that BAKA ultimately chose to give the funds to ANERA,” Shipp wrote.
     The judge later added: “Moreover the legal notice provided to the attendees of the fundraiser stated: ‘This letter is to notify the attendees … that the funds collected tonight will be held by Rutgers University until the legal issues and status surrounding the beneficiary are resolved. You may opt for a refund if there is an alternative [recipient] chosen by BAKA and this is not your preference.’ The voluntarily made donations merely implemented the plaintiffs’ choice to donate to an entity selected by BAKA. Thus, any injury that plaintiffs incurred is ‘self-inflicted harm’ not fairly traceable to defendants.”

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