Thursday, March 14, 2024

20+ Student Groups Protest Lawsuit Against Columbia’s Suspension of Two Students


In November, Columbia University students staged a protest against Israel’s war on Gaza. There was a “die-in,” an art installation, and a list of demands, among them that the school administration publicly call for a ceasefire and divest from companies implicated in Israel’s violence. The protest concluded with students singing “We Shall Overcome.”

A day later, Columbia suspended two of the student groups who had co-sponsored the demonstration. Senior Executive Vice President Gerald Rosberg called it an “unauthorized event” that “proceeded despite warnings and included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.”

Now, those groups have sued the school. On Tuesday, the New York Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal filed a lawsuit against Columbia University, “for the unlawful suspension of its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) for engaging in peaceful protest.” The groups seek reinstatement and a declaration that the school violated state law in carrying out the suspensions.

The suit — brought on behalf of the SJP and JVP chapters, as well as one Palestinian and one Jewish student — notes that the November 9 protest was “sponsored by a coalition comprised of over 20 groups,” and that nevertheless, the “two groups were given no notice of the planned suspensions and no opportunity to respond to the charges or to contest them. None of the other groups involved in the event faced disciplinary action.”

The plaintiffs draw attention to a “Special Committee on Campus Safety,” created in the aftermath of Hamas’s attack on October 7, which carried out the suspensions (Rosberg is its chair). They say that the suspended student groups, the university senate, and broader school community only learned of the committee’s existence after it took action. The suit adds “the Petitioner students had previously been warned by their student advisor about a so-called ‘protest-shutting-down committee’ that had been regularly meeting and purportedly waiting for SJP, especially, to make a wrong move.”

The suit notes that Rosberg told SJP and JVP in a November 30 meeting — also attended by other administrators, university senators, and faculty members — that they had not been suspended for a violation of the university code of conduct. According to the students, he did not specify what exactly accounted for the decision, or why it was conducted in such a public manner. “When pressed to specify which of the student groups’ actions constituted ‘threatening rhetoric and intimidation,’ VP Rosberg proffered that protestors’ accusations that Israel was ‘a racist state committing genocide’ and ‘is an apartheid state’ could upset some people and ‘seem like an incitement of violence,’” the suit reads. (In December, students confronted Rosberg, asking him, “Are Palestinians human?” He responded, “I refuse to be intimidated.”)

Columbia declined to comment on the pending litigation. The university still has an open investigation into a January protest on campus where pro-Palestinian students were attacked with chemicals. Students maintained to The Intercept that the university had disregarded their complaints about the attack at the protest. The demonstration had also been labeled “unsanctioned.”

“It was incredibly frustrating to see a ‘Special Committee on Campus Safety’ weaponize the notion of safety to restrict dissent when, in doing so, they in fact compromised the safety of Palestinian and pro-Palestinian students,” one of the plaintiffs, Maryam Alwan, told The Intercept. “Clearly, Columbia has the capacity to act quickly to enact unilateral policy changes and take extreme actions, but only insofar as they can preserve the interests of their investments in Israel and their donors — not when it comes to the physical safety of pro-Palestinian students.”

At the University of Pennsylvania, meanwhile, campus affiliates are also taking their school to court. Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine — made up of professors, staff, and graduate students — filed a legal complaint on Saturday pressing the university to not hand over teaching files, emails, and other documents to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce. (Penn did not respond to a request for comment on the complaint.)

The committee is investigating what it claims is “rampant antisemitism” on college campuses, namely Ivy League schools like Penn and Harvard University, as well as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It’s the same committee — with Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., at the helm — that held hearings in December that led to the resignation of Penn President Elizabeth Magill and Harvard’s Claudine Gay.

The Penn faculty group said, “The Committee is engaged in a partisan witch hunt by seeking syllabi, academic papers, and other material from Penn faculty of all ranks, with the search highlighting keywords like Jew, Israel, antisemitism, Palestine, Gaza, resistance, settler colonialism and diversity, equity and inclusion, to name most of their criteria.”

The “would-be McCarthyesque House of Representatives is behaving as if it never heard of the First Amendment,” the complaint continues. The faculty members cited the passage of House Resolution 894 — which equates anti-Zionism with antisemitism — and the fact that the committee is seeking to obtain student information deemed confidential under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

Plaintiff Eve Troutt Powell, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Penn, told The Intercept that the university was in a difficult position, being under attack from Congress and donor pressure, but that the school should have stood firm. “We have been doxxed and we have been harassed and the university has promised it would protect us,” she said, “but we now understand that the university has been giving over documents, perhaps in hopes that this congressional committee will not subpoena the university, and we don’t accept it.”

Troutt Powell noted that Penn faculty and students are already feeling pressure after Magill’s resignation and from statements by Marc Rowan, the billionaire CEO of private equity firm Apollo Global Management, who is chair of the board of advisers of the university’s Wharton School of Business.

Rowan has advanced an assault on academic freedom at Penn, all while smearing its students for their views on Israel. He suggested the university eliminate certain departments — including the arts and sciences school — and revise policies surrounding hiring and campus speech. He has derided students as antisemitic for using the phrase “from the river to the sea,” while at the same time calling them ignorant: “If you ask these kids what river and what sea, they don’t know. Who lives between the river and the sea They don’t know. How did they get there? They don’t know,” he said at the Economic Club of Washington last month.

Rowan is also among the “critical Penn donors” who shelled out tens of thousands of dollars in January to Foxx, the Virginia House member after her crusade against colleges including Penn began.

“We’re not hearing enough of a response” from the school administration, Troutt Powell said. “I feel like I wouldn’t tell a graduate student to come here if you’re going to work on Middle East stuff. I’m worried about my junior colleagues very much and I’ve never seen a university go from safe to unsafe so quickly.”

A week after Magill’s resignation in December, and in response to comments by Rowan, over 900 school faculty signed a letter railing against “attempts by trustees, donors, and other external actors to interfere with our academic policies and to undermine academic freedom.”

The lawsuit takes this a step further, asking a judge to issue an injunction to stop the university from cooperating with the House investigation.

Faculty for Justice in Palestine said, “Penn FJP hopes that this lawsuit will encourage Penn to … protect its faculty from a committee that forced the resignation of former president M. Liz Magill — for the first time in both the House Congressional Committee’s history and that of the university.”

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