Ahmad Awad, of Wayne, NJ, is suing Fordham University for refusing to recognize a pro-Palestinian club.The lawsuit was filed April 26, 2017.
Fordham University returned to court Tuesday seeking permission to reinstate a ban on a Palestinian rights club in a case closely watched by free speech advocates, universities and activists.
Ahmad Awad of Wayne led the lawsuit against the university after it barred him and fellow students from starting a Students for Justice in Palestine club in 2016, saying it would lead to polarization on campus.
Years later, he is still hoping that Fordham will drop its opposition to the club.
“This is a university I was in love with,” he said Tuesday after the hearing. “But to hear that from the top level, that there was such resentment or resistance to me advocating for human rights, was really discouraging.”
It is a “seminal case” because it marks the first time pro-Palestinian advocates had sued a university over censorship, said Radhika Sainath, senior staff attorney with Palestine Legal, which is representing students with the Center for Constitutional Rights and co-counsel Alan Levine.
New York Supreme Court Justice Nancy Bannon ruled last year that Fordham had violated its own rules when it vetoed the student government’s decision to approve the club.
In the appeal, Fordham attorney James Ryan argued that Dean Keith Elredge did comply with club guidelines and that he had power to veto a student application. He argued that the dean had done extensive research and interviews before he vetoed the group, so his decision was not arbitrary.
As a private university, Fordham has also maintained that it does not have to abide by the First Amendment, which protects free speech.
Plaintiffs also include Sapphira Lurie, Sofia Dadap and Julie Norris, who all have graduated. Veer Shetty later joined the lawsuit, despite an attempt by Fordham to block him in court from doing so.
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A five-year battle
Ahmad Awad, center, with other Fordham students and supporters outside the courthouse in lower Manhattan in 2018. (Photo: Viorel Florescu/northjersey.com)
Awad first applied for club status in November 2015. He and the other students faced delays and questioning about their politics, including their use of the term “apartheid” and support for a boycott aimed at pressuring Israel to end its occupation of the West Bank.
Elredge had said he would not support the students because its sole purpose would be to advocate against a specific group or country and that the call for a boycott “presents a barrier to open dialogue.”
In the appeal, Fordham said Elredge was concerned about alleged “safety and security” problems associated with other club chapters. Levine, co-counsel, said Elredge didn’t raise that concern when he denied the club.
“There is nothing to suggest they would engage in any of the conduct that would concern the dean,” Levine told the Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court.
The club has been active at Fordham since the lower court ordered the university to recognize the group and has hosted speakers, a poetry night and reading group discussions.
Fordham professors and groups of Jewish and Catholic scholars submitted amicus briefs in support of the students. The National Coalition Against Censorship, PEN American Center, Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, Defending Rights and Dissent and Jewish Voice for Peace also filed briefs in support of the students.
The Zionist Organization of America and StandWithUs, groups that support Israel and fight anti-Semitism, filed briefs in support of the university.
The Appellate Division of the New York State Supreme Court will issue a decision on the appeal at an undetermined future date.
A tense climate
Ahmad Awad of Wayne sued Fordham University for refusing to recognize a pro-Palestinian club. (Photo: Martin Nunez-Bonilla/Courtesy of Palestine Legal)
The court case comes amid a tense climate on college campuses surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Across the U.S., Palestinian activism has grown and has included students from a range of backgrounds, including Jewish activists.
In the Fordham case, Awad is the only one of the five plaintiffs of Palestinian heritage. His father’s parents were born in Palestine prior to the establishment of Israel in 1948. His mother’s father was a Polish survivor of Nazi labor camps.
Across campuses, there has been criticism and pushback from pro-Israel groups who say activists unfairly single out and vilify Israel. Some critics have argued that the club’s protests, such as the boycott of Israeli products, are anti-Semitic.
They have found support in the Trump administration. At the Department of Education, Kenneth Marcus, the former head of the civil rights office, said he would use a new “working definition” of anti-Semitism that describes many criticisms of Israel as anti-Semitic when investigating Rutgers University. He stepped down from the post in July.
Last week, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced the administration would cut off government support for any organizations taking part in the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement aimed at Israel. Pompeo appeared to be targeting human rights and Palestinian organizations, rather than universities and colleges, in the policy.
There are more than 220 chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine in the U.S. and Canada, including at least six universities in the Jesuit Catholic tradition like Fordham University.
Shetty, current vice president of the Fordham chapter, said he hoped the court would uphold the decision so students could continue holding events.
“We have had no problems,” he said. “In fact, it’s the opposite. I felt the last year has been a great time for us to organize and get together. It’s just so crazy that Fordham is still fighting it.”
Hannan Adely is an education and diversity reporter for NorthJersey.com. To get unlimited access to the latest news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.
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