MANHATTAN (CN) — Four Fordham undergraduates filed a lawsuit accusing the university of viewpoint discrimination over its decision to reject their application to form a local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.
Ahmad Awad, a Fordham senior leading Wednesday’s lawsuit, traces his activism to having two grandparents born in Palestine before the establishment of the state of Israel and another grandparent who is a Polish survivor of the Nazi labor camps.
“As a Palestinian on campus, I was denied the opportunity to advocate for freedom for my people,” Awad said in a statement. “Instead of encouraging our human rights advocacy, the university sided with those trying to silence our voices.”
He is joined in the New York County Supreme Court lawsuit by Sofia Dadap, a junior; Julie Norris, a sophomore; and Sapphira Lurie, a senior who says she was raised in a Jewish Zionist household.
After putting in their application on Nov. 19, 2015, Awad says, the students believed its approval “would take a few weeks.”
Instead, he claims, the students waited nearly a year, as administrators told them that the club’s support of the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions, or BDS, movement would “stir up controversy.”
While their application was pending, New York’s Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed an executive order blocking state agencies from doing business with companies and businesses that back a boycott against Israel.
Responding to a Fordham administrator’s concerns about Cuomo’s order, the lawsuit states, “The students explained that boycotts are protected speech activity and that such legislation could not legally prohibit their advocacy for BDS.”
Although the student government group voted to recognize the SJP chapter, Fordham’s Dean of Students Keith Eldredge overruled the approval “in an action apparently without precedent,” according to the lawsuit.
More than 100 professors signed a petition protesting the decision by Eldredge, who is not a party to the lawsuit.
Fordham’s spokesman Bob Howe said that the university rejected the club “based upon behavior of the national organization and other SJP chapters reported in the news media that, if true, are not in keeping with Fordham’s values.”
“While Fordham officials aren’t in a position to know the truth of these reports, taken as a whole the University believed that a student club bearing that name is not in the bests interests of our students on either side of the debate, or would serve to foster reasoned discussion on these very difficult issues,” Howe wrote in an email. “The students have indicated that although affiliated with the national organization, they will not receive support from, report to, or be directed by them.”
Howe did not specify what news reports concerned the university.
He added that the university would grant club status if the club changed its name and “slightly revised” its constitution to distance itself from the national organization.
The Center for Constitutional Rights slammed the university’s action as a threat to free speech on campus.
“If Fordham’s guarantee of freedom of inquiry means anything, it’s that students who want to advocate for Palestinian rights must be able to start an SJP club and host events, invite guest speakers, distribute flyers, and post materials just like any other group,” the group’s deputy legal director, Maria LaHood, who signed the lawsuit, said in a statement.
Palestine Legal, a nonprofit serving as LaHood’s co-counsel, said that it responded to 650 complaints of suppression against pro-Palestinian speech between 2014 and 2016.