Students sue university

***Clarification: A previous version of this article wrote that the University filed a motion with the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California dismissing the complaint. The correct phrasing is that the University filed a motion to dismiss the complaint. This article has since been updated to reflect the clarification.

After a summer in which SF State was bombarded with headlines regarding a lawsuit that was filed against the University for alleged patterns of anti-Semitism, the school filed a motion last Monday to dismiss the complaint.

SF State filed a motion on Aug. 21 to dismiss a complaint made in a lawsuit by former and current SF State students and community members, alleging the University of fostering a climate of anti-Semitism on campus.

According to a statement by SF State’s University Counsel Daniel Ojeda, the lawsuit “is a misguided effort to control speech at San Francisco State University and divide the campus community.”

“The complaint lacks any viable claims against the University defendants as a matter of law,” Ojeda said in the statement. “The complaint against the University and state officials is prohibited by the Eleventh Amendment, which provides state entities and actors immunity from claims asserted in federal courts.”

The lawsuit was filed in June by former and current SF State students and community members against SF State, members of its administration, President Leslie E. Wong and the California State University Board of Trustees. The lawsuit alleges that SF State and some of its administrators deliberately fostered a hostile environment toward Jewish students on campus, “which has been marked by violent threats to the safety of Jewish students on campus,” the lawsuit reads.  

The suit also alleges that SF State discriminated against Jewish student groups, excluded them from campus events such as the Know Your Rights Fair on Feb. 28, and violated the plaintiff’s’ right to free speech.

“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 suit said.

The suit describes a history of anti-Jewish animus at SF State, dating back to 1968. The suit itself was prompted by a confrontation in April 2016, when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s visit to campus for an event was met with protest from members of the General Union of Palestine Students (GUPS), Black Student Union, the League of Filipino Students and Defend and Advance Ethnic Studies.   

The suit said the plaintiffs, some of which organized the Barkat event, feared for their lives when protesters came to the event and used “amplified sound to disrupt” Barkat’s speech. According to the suit, protesters shouted profanities at Barkat and told him to leave the campus.  

“SFSU has not merely fostered and embraced anti-Jewish hostility — it has systematically supported these departments and student groups as they have doggedly organized their efforts to target, threaten, and intimidate Jewish students on campus and deprive them of their civil rights and their ability to feel safe and secure as they pursue their education,” the lawsuit said.

But according to an independent investigation into the Barkat event, the protesters disrupted the event and violated school policy but did not pose a threat to the audience. Moreover, the report said the protest “was directed towards the mayor of Jerusalem based on his politics.”

“While some audience members were deeply hurt, even frightened, by the protest, in this specific circumstance there were no direct threats of imminent violence that would have justified police intervention, specifically arrest and removal from the area,” the report reads.

Tallie Ben Daniel of the Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that “opposes anti-Jewish, anti-Muslim, and anti-Arab bigotry and oppression,” believes the lawsuit is not really about combating anti-Semitism.

“I think taken together, it feels a little bit more of a cynical way of using anti-Semitism rather than a true concern for … combating anti-Semitism,” Ben Daniel said in a phone interview. “I feel like part of what this lawsuit is trying to do is to repress speech and say people shouldn’t talk and say what they think.”

Ben Daniel believes that the protesters’ political message at the Barkat event was lost amid the accusation of threats of violence.  

“I think in that accusation is the assumption that criticism of a Jewish politician is inspired by anti-Semitism rather than really thinking about what the political point of the students (was) trying to (convey),” Ben Daniel said. “I think to call any kind of …  advocacy for Palestinian human rights, anti-Semitism — it’s just fundamentally misunderstanding what anti-Semitism is.”

The General Union of Palestinian Students (GUPS) could not be reached for an interview about this issue. GUPS wrote this in an online statement following the Barkat incident:

“Providing a platform for Barkat on our campus erases the violent and brutal realities faced by Palestinians … The protest was led by a coalition of students representing a multiplicity of communities, ethnicities, and backgrounds who stand in solidarity for the freedom of Palestine.”

Jacob Mandel, a plaintiff in the lawsuit who graduated from the University in early 2017, said in a phone interview in July that he had hoped protesters would have joined the discussion at the Barkat event.  

“We actually had planned for a Q&A session (after the event),” Mandel said. “We planned for … constructive dialogue (with) anybody who had a difference of opinion.”  

The other event the lawsuit highlights is the exclusion of SF Hillel’s student organization at SF State from the Know Your Rights Fair in February 2017.

The suit alleges the SF State group was barred from the event intentionally based on its members’ “religion and ethnicity, with the full knowledge and involvement of SFSU administrators.”

“Hillel was intentionally and surreptitiously barred from a Know Your Rights Fair based on its members’ religion and ethnicity, with the full knowledge and involvement of SFSU administrators, in clear violation of Plaintiffs’ civil rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments,” the suit said.  

An SF State investigation into the alleged discriminatory exclusion of Hillel from the Know Your Rights Fair concluded that the group was excluded out of retaliation and because of the content of their speech and political viewpoint, according to a letter from Luoluo Hong, vice president of Student Affairs and Title IX Coordinator at SF State, sent to SF Hillel Executive Director Ollie Benn and obtained by Xpress.  

“In particular, the preponderance of the evidence shows that members of the Committee disagreed with Hillel’s viewpoints regarding Israel and Mayor Barkat, and denied Hillel the opportunity to table at the Fair because of its prior conduct and its viewpoints concerning Israeli/Palestinian issues,” the letter reads.     

“It is extremely concerning that a group of faculty, staff and employees decided to gather in a room to decide ‘how, not whether,’ the only Jewish student group on campus would be excluded from the Know Your Rights Fair,” said Benn in an email. “We are still waiting for SF State to confront and deal with this institutional problem head on.”

According to information provided by Benn, the organizing committee for the fair included several students and four SF State employees.

One of the organizers of the fair, Saliem Shehadeh, who graduated from SF State in the Spring of 2017, wrote an article on mondoweiss.net, detailing various circumstances before and after the fair, as well as explaining the committee’s decision to exclude Hillel.

“Providing a table to Hillel, whose conduct has threatened the safety of campus Palestinians and other advocates for justice in Palestine, is akin to giving a table to ICE at a gathering of undocumented communities, or having the Ferguson Police Chief table at an event discussing police brutality against black teenagers,” Shehadeh wrote. “The objections to Hillel were always, and are still, about the organization’s conduct threatening students’ rights. It was in no way an issue of religious discrimination nor retaliation …”

Shehadeh goes on to explain Hillel’s accusations of Palestinian and other students’ protest at the Barkat event having been threatening to be “Islamophobic fear mongering and racist Orientalist tropes of Palestinians as savages.”

“ … the stain and trauma of these allegations continue to follow SFSU students in their academic and professional pursuits, threatening student’s rights to speak, to study, and to even organize for our own protection in this political climate,” Shehadeh wrote.

On May 3, a set of posters was distributed on campus by the David Horowitz Freedom Center, criticizing Palestinian activists and their supporters and alleging they are linked to terrorism.

GUPS expressed its concerns and frustration in another online statement, saying the University’s administration failed to protect them and others.

“Once again SFSU administration has failed to protect us and provide a safe work and study environment for students faculty and staff,” the statement said. “Claims of being a sanctuary campus must be evidenced in deeds not in words.”

The feeling of inaction is also shared by several Jewish students on campus.

According to the independent investigation, Student Affairs and Student Conduct failed to respond to complaints by students, following the Barkat event and protest.    

Mandel said that the University’s administration “is dismissive of any of the claims Jewish students have brought.”

Mandel said he filed two formal complaints with the University and the California State University system but was essentially “ignored and dismissed.”

Mandel also described his occasional fear of walking on campus.  

“There were definitely times where … I avoided (the Malcolm X Plaza), take alternate routes around campus … to avoid the center of campus because I knew that I was publically identifiable as a Jewish student and president of the Jewish Student Union. I was very concerned for my safety,” Mandel said.

Fred Astren, Jewish studies department chair at SF State, said that he has seen various situations of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on campus.

“ … I have seen situations, whether they involved individuals or campus groups, where I would characterize the presence of anti-Semitism,” Astren said. “I would also say I have seen the presence of Islamophobia on our campus as well … The situation on our campus (in) regard to these matters needs addressing.”

Astren also said that the University’s leadership is needed now.

“After a year and a half of about what the right to protest is, and what the right of freedom of speech is, our values are not clear right now,” Astren said. “Nobody should have their right to protest something that they disagree with to be curtailed; nobody should have their freedom of speech curtailed … We need to have leadership tell us, convince us, let us agree with — what are the values of this community?”   

On May 5, Wong sent out a campus-wide email, condemning anti-Semitism and Islamophobia.

I strongly condemn any anti-Semitic or Islamophobic rhetoric and behaviors, particularly when they cause our students to feel unsafe and they compromise the learning environment at San Francisco State,” Wong wrote.

A day after the lawsuit was filed in June, the University issued a statement disputing the claims made in the suit. It also invited anyone concerned with the current campus climate to join the University in its “substantive actions” to improve the campus environment.   

Ojeda said the University will also continue its resistance of discrimination and bigotry and assure the right to free speech for all campus community members.   

“While the unfortunate legal process unfolds, San Francisco State University remains resolute in its opposition to discrimination and bigotry in all its forms and respect for free speech rights for all students and community members.”

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