A new lawsuit accuses Fordham University administrators of unfairly blocking recognition for a pro-Palestinian student organization on campus. In announcing the lawsuit, students represented by the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal say the Fordham administration committed "viewpoint discrimination" in refusing to give recognition to a branch of Students for Justice in Palestine on campus.
The fight for SJP getting recognition on Fordham's campus dates back to 2015, according to the press release, when administrators delayed recognizing the group out of a fear that it would "stir up controversy." After the student government approved the club in 2016, the lawsuit claims that the Fordham Dean of Students, Keith Eldredge, overruled the student government approval on the grounds that SJP would be too polarizing because of the national group's support of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) tactic against Israel.
Earlier this year, the state Senate passed a bill that stripped public funding from any students or university groups who endorsed BDS or participated in "hate speech" against Israel. In addition, Governor Cuomo directed New York State to boycott any company that boycotted Israel, in a show of support for Israel that he said—"not to get political"—showed the Democratic Party was still the party more closely allied with the country.
“As a Palestinian on campus, I was denied the opportunity to advocate for freedom for my people,” Ahmad Awad, a graduating Fordham student and plaintiff in the lawsuit said in the press release. In the lawsuit itself, the plaintiffs claim that a student who was the Vice President of Operations in the student government specifically asked the SJP organizers if Cuomo's BDS executive order prevented the formation of the club at a meeting before the club was eventually approved.
After Dean Eldredge told organizers he was overruling the student government approval of the club pending further study of the issue, the plaintiffs claim that at a December 2016 meeting, he and another faculty member "asked the students their views on BDS and whether it meant the dissolution of Israel, why they would use the term 'apartheid' to describe Israel and whether they would work with national advocacy groups Jewish Voice for Peace, J Street and Seeds of Peace."
Since the students at the meeting refused to say they wouldn't endorse BDS, Eldrege denied the club official recognition on the last day of the fall 2016 semester, writing that SJP's endorsement of the boycott, divestment and sanctions tactic "presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding." Eldredge told students that his decision couldn't be appealed, according to the lawsuit, while another administrator allegedly told students that the objection to the club's approval came from the behavior of other Students for Justice in Palestine organizations on other college campuses. The students in the suit claim that they repeatedly told school administrators that their SJP chapter would be autonomous from the national organization and other chapters around the country.
Bob Howe, a spokesperson for the university, confirmed that the school was concerned about reports about the behavior of SJP chapters on other campuses. He also told Gothamist that the school "is simply asking that the name of the club and the proposed constitution be changed to more accurately reflect the lack of control by the national organization or chapters of SJP, which the students have already represented to be the case."
The authors of a study of pro-Palestinian and SJP actions on CUNY campuses last year came to the conclusion that while some unidentified activists acted in ways that put students in fear for their safety, they did not endorse banning Students for Justice in Palestine from CUNY campuses.