Fordham University has recently been awarded the dubious distinction of being named one of the 10 worst campuses in the United States when it comes to free speech and academic freedom. Its sin? To have, in an unprecedented move, overturned its own process for approving student groups and unilaterally denied recognition to one student organization alone — Students for Justice in Palestine.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education,
On November 17, 2016, the Fordham United Student Government (USG) Senate and Executive Board approved Students for Justice in Palestine’s application for recognition, noting that SJP “fulfills a need for open discussion and demonstrates that Fordham is a place that exemplifies diversity of thought.”
But after USG’s approval, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge notified SJP members that he wanted to review the group’s status before finalizing official recognition. On December 22, Eldredge informed the students that he would not grant SJP official recognition, writing that he “cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country” and that “the Israeli-Palestinian conflict … often leads to polarization rather than dialogue.” He also notified them that his decision could not be appealed.
Fordham is a private Jesuit institution, and as such, it cannot be sued for infringements of free speech like a state institution can. But the lawsuit filed by Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights on behalf of four students — Ahmad Awad, Sofia Dadap, Sapphira Lurie and Julie Norris — argues that the manner in which the university denied the group recognition “violates numerous written policies, including the policy against infringement of students’ rights to ‘freely express his or her positions and to work for their acceptance’ on campus.” The essential argument is that the university’s actions deny a specific group rights that are extended to others. In response, the lawsuit states, “petitioners, pursuant to their entitlement as members of the Fordham University community, and in defense of basic principles of free speech, free inquiry and associational freedom, seek judicial review authorized by Article 78 [of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules] to compel the University to officially recognize SJP as a student club.”
Eldredge’s reasoning is a model of the kinds of contortions university administrators twist themselves into when they are caught in a contradiction. As there are no standing rules against such groups, Eldredge simply made some up in order to distract from the fact that this is yet another example of the “Palestine Exception,” wherein those advocating for Palestinian rights and critical of Israeli state policies are singled out for “exceptional” denials of free speech. And Fordham’s action is exceptional in another manner.
“This is [the] first incident we’ve heard of where a university outright banned an SJP,” Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal, told Truthout. “Fordham engaged in blatant censorship when it banned Students for Justice in Palestine. Universities, even private ones, may not arbitrarily discriminate against students and organizations because they don’t like their opinions.
This double standard showed up again recently, when Jane Close Conoley, president of California State University, wrote to student senators blaming the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement (BDS) for the rise in white supremacist vandalism, while her administration has taken no action in response to graffiti threatening to “kill all Muslims on Friday.”
In response to this unilateral action on the university’s part, Palestine Legal’s press release notes that “numerous civil rights and community groups condemned the decision, including Catholic clergy and professors, and more than 100 Fordham professors. Last week, faculty voted no confidence in the leadership of Fordham President Rev. Joseph M. McShane by a margin of 431 to 57.”
While religious institutions might balk at approving organizations whose advocacy might go against church teachings — for example, a pro-choice group or one arguing for LGBTQ rights — in this case, there is nothing that goes against the doctrine of the Catholic Church. In fact, Jesuit institutions are often rightfully proud of their involvement with liberation theology, and have been openly critical of repressive regimes, especially in Latin America. Eldredge’s remark that SJP targets a “specific country” is quite telling — in making this charge, he is using the by-now familiar equation of criticism of state policies with criticism of Israel. Again, this is a common feature of the Palestine Exception — it’s permissible to criticize regimes in El Salvador, but not in Israel.
The great martyred priest Archbishop Oscar Romero, executed in El Salvador, once said:
It is very easy to be servants of the word without disturbing the world: a very spiritualized word, a word without any commitment to history, a word that can sound in any part of the world because it belongs to no part of the world. A word like that creates no problems, starts no conflicts.
What starts conflicts and persecutions, what marks the genuine church, is the word that, burning like the word of the prophets, proclaims and accuses: proclaims to the people God’s wonders to be believed and venerated, and accuses of sin those who oppose God’s reign, so that they may tear that sin out of their hearts, out of their societies, out of their laws — out of the structures that oppress, that imprison, that violate the rights of God and of humanity.
In placing this ban on Students for Justice in Palestine, Fordham has betrayed its teachings and its ethos — it serves as a horrible model for not only its own students, but for people everywhere.