Students at Fordham University are suing the university saying it’s violating its own laws and procedures by not allowing them to register a Students for Justice in Palestine club at the school’s Lincoln Center campus. The student government body initially approved the club, a decision which was subsequently overturned by Dean of Students Keith Eldredge in a move that critics say is “unprecedented.”
The students, represented by Palestine Legal, the Center for Constitutional Rights, and cooperating counsel Alan Levine, filed the lawsuit on April 26. The university responded to the suit last month with a motion to dismiss, to which the plaintiff issued a response. The case is expected to proceed to a hearing before the New York State Supreme Court.
“Fordham’s decision to deny SJP official recognition is a flagrant violation of its own policies promising to uphold free expression,” said Ruhan Nagra, a Bertha Legal Fellow at the Center for Constitutional Rights who is working on the case. “The evidence suggests that it’s unprecedented for the dean of students to veto a decision that the student government has made to approve a club.”
The chapter in question would only serve the Lincoln Center campus; there has been no attempt to start an SJP chapter at Fordham’s main campus, in the Bronx.
Emily Sitner, a recent graduate of Fordham University and former president of its Jewish Student Organization, said the United Student Government invited her and fellow members of the Fordham Jewish community to discuss the issue with them. They shared their concerns about the actions the Fordham SJP chapter might take in light of SJP’s actions at other schools.
“Some of us knew students at other campuses not only in New York but outside of New York who have been personally targeted by certain events or programming or demonstrations that SJP has held,” said Sitner. “We don’t want the same thing to happen at Fordham.”
“There was no activity involving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict until SJP wanted to form this club,” Sitner added, unlike other schools, such as Columbia University and New York University, that have been the site of bitter public battles between SJP and pro-Israel advocacy groups. While the students hoped to provide information to the student government and to Eldredge about SJP’s activities at other campuses, Sitner said the Jewish Student Organization would welcome SJP to engage in dialogue with them.
“Every SJP operates independently; Fordham SJP is not beholden to national SJP or to any other SJP,” said Nagra. “Fordham nevertheless continues to justify its decision on the basis of the conduct of other SJPS on other campuses as though that has any bearing on how Fordham SJP would conduct itself.”
Jason Morris, a professor of biology at the university who also serves as the Hillel adviser there, has been in touch with the administration about the issue. “I think that based on what I know about SJP, it would undermine the strength of our community,” said Morris, speaking of the broader Fordham community. “It doesn’t seem to me that it’s an organization that has a record of prioritizing civility or respectful discourse, nor does it particularly place a priority on strict adherence to historical facts or to recognizing context or nuance.”
The university released a statement defending its actions: “Fordham University administrators offered the students hoping to register SJP as an official club other options, including a club centered on Palestinian interests that was not affiliated with the national SJP organization. The students explicitly refused such a compromise (Fordham already has a Muslim students association).”