SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – San Francisco State University has “systematically instilled” anti-Jewish hostility on campus and enabled anti-Israel protesters to disrupt a speech by the mayor of Jerusalem last year, Jewish students claim in federal court.
“SFSU has fostered and sanctioned anti-Semitism from the highest levels and affirmed the actions of hostile, aggressive, and disruptive students to regularly violate the rights of Jewish students,” the students’ 76-page complaint states.
Lead plaintiff Jacob Mandel and five other Jewish students sued the university in federal court in the Northern District of California Monday. The students claim SFSU violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by suppressing pro-Israel speech, excluding a Jewish student group from on-campus events and failing to stop protesters from shutting down Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s speech at an off-campus venue last year.
Mandel says school administrators “instructed police to stand down” and allow unruly protesters, many of them members of the General Union of Palestine Students, to “commandeer” Barkat’s lecture and derail the event on April 6, 2016. The protesters used banned sound amplifiers and shouted, “Get the fuck off our campus,” and “We don’t want you on our campus,” according to the lawsuit.
Even though the anti-Israel protesters violated multiple terms of the school’s Student Code of Conduct, school administrators refused to take disciplinary action against the protest organizers, according to the complaint.
“The incident at SFSU has become another example of the dangerous assault on First Amendment rights on college campuses by administrators and officials who support the suppression of free speech by elements within the academic community who refuse to allow anyone on campus to hear perspectives with which they disagree,” the students claim in their lawsuit.
Barkat was scheduled to give another talk at SFSU this year, but he cancelled in April, complaining that the school failed to provide “the necessary public forum” or “properly publicize” the lecture, contributing to “the continuing marginalization and demonization of the Jewish state,” according to a letter Barkat wrote as reported by the San Francisco Examiner in April.
The lawsuit also claims that SFSU welcomes speeches from controversial figures who advocate violence and the elimination of Israel while failing to ensure those expressing opposing views receive an equal opportunity to present their perspectives on campus.
“SFSU’s long-engrained history of fomenting anti-Jewish animus on campus, not surprisingly, includes an equally long list of anti-Semitic speakers at events sponsored, funded, promoted, and celebrated by the University and its administrators and faculty, coupled with special solicitude towards other groups on campus that support terrorism and/or radical anti-Jewish views,” the complaint states.
The students also claim that the school intentionally excluded SF Hillel, a Jewish student group, from participating in a “Know Your Rights” fair in February 2017 and a student group recruitment fair in August 2016.
Despite promises by school administrators like SFSU President Leslie Wong to “lead a university-wide effort to seek solutions to the anti-Semitism on this campus,” the Jewish students say the university has offered little more than lip service to address the issue.
“These empty and overly general statements, which amount to no real commitments beyond promises to form committees to study the long-standing problem, fail to address the very real and immediate concerns of Jewish students on campus regarding their rights and physical safety,” the students claim.
SFSU spokeswoman J. Elizabeth Smith said in an email Tuesday that the university “condemns all forms of hate and anti-Semitism,” adding that the disruption of Barkat’s speech last year and other incidents of bias serve as “ugly reminders that anti-Semitism, like all forms of discrimination, is real and our community has work to do.”
Smith said the university “strives to cultivate a safe and welcoming environment” where all members of the community can engage in free expression without infringing on the rights and academic opportunities of others.
Still, Smith said the university strongly disagrees with allegations laid out in the students’ complaint.
“Instances of intolerance or anti-Semitism are neither promoted nor tolerated at SF State by the president or by administrators. San Francisco State University is deeply committed to the elimination of anti-Semitism in our community and to fostering a safe and welcoming campus for our Jewish students. When such instances are brought to the attention of administrators, they are investigated impartially and action is taken in accordance with resulting findings,” Smith said.
Smith went on to outline steps the university has taken to “improve the campus environment for students,” including Jewish students. Those steps include new trainings for staff, students and campus police; implementing new protocols for managing protests to protect free speech; assembling a task force to address the campus climate; creating a new position of assistant vice president for equity and community inclusion; updating the campus free speech policy; investigating the alleged exclusion of Hillel students from the “Know Your Rights” fair; holding a series of community conversations to foster dialogue; and adopting clear principles against intolerance under the university’s strategic plan.
“We invite all our students and our community, and specifically our Jewish students and community, to join us in these substantive and proactive measures,” Smith said. “We will pursue these actions regardless of any legal challenge or distraction, with the expectation and goal of offering an inclusive and welcoming environment for all out students.”
Named defendants in the lawsuit include Wong, the Board of Trustees of California State University, SFSU, the school’s deputy police chief Reginald Parson, and 10 other individual SFSU administrators.
The plaintiffs seek punitive damages and a permanent injunction forbidding the school from establishing policies that violate the free speech and equal protection rights of Jewish students.
The students are represented by Robb Adkins of Winston & Strawn in San Francisco.