WASHINGTON – Today, civil rights groups asked the New York Court of Appeals, the highest court in New York State, to hear an appeal of a ruling that allows Fordham University to censor student speech. The petition comes in a lawsuit brought by Fordham students prohibited by the university from forming a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) school club because of the group’s “political goals” and because of claims it would be “polarizing.”
“I am beyond disappointed with the court’s shameful decision,” said Veer Shetty, a senior at Fordham and vice president of Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine. “We have been fighting for five years now just to have a space where we can discuss and advocate for Palestinian rights on campus— it’s awful that Fordham continues to censor us. We are on the right side of history, and I’m confident that in the end justice will prevail.”
Advocates emphasize that Fordham’s censorship of SJP is particularly egregious at a time when the university claims it is reckoning with institutional racism, including its historical failures on racial justice, and prioritizing values of anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion.
The students seek to appeal a December 2020 decision that reversed, with minimal analysis, a thorough ruling by the trial court in August 2019 holding that Fordham’s refusal to recognize SJP was irrational and inconsistent with its own policies, which protect free expression. Following the lower court decision, which ordered Fordham to recognize the club, Fordham SJP has been in operation – without incident – for the last two semesters.
Today’s petition argues that the lower court’s decision improperly ignored the ongoing harm the ban created, and that the decision to ban SJP was irrational because it was contrary to Fordham’s policies and the facts at hand.
In the fall of 2015, Fordham University students applied to start a Students for Justice in Palestine club on campus. Over the next year, administrators required the students to attend multiple meetings, questioned students about their political views, and demanded amendments to SJP’s constitution. Finally, in November 2016, Fordham’s undergraduate student government approved SJP as a student club—only to have Fordham Dean of Students Keith Eldredge take the unprecedented step of vetoing the student government’s approval.
Though all of the students who originally sought to form the SJP club have since graduated, current Fordham students are continuing the fight. If permitted to stand, the appellate division’s reversal of the trial court’s ruling would allow Fordham to once again prohibit the club on the explicit basis of SJP’s “political goals” and the possibility it would lead to “polarization.”
“We believe in the students’ right to organize for Palestinian rights and will support them every step of the way,” said Radhika Sainath, senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal. “The Court of Appeals must stop this blatant censorship in its tracks.”
The movement for Palestinian rights has continued to grow, at Fordham and around the country, despite Fordham’s official censorship of SJP, and despite coordinated nationwide attacks on people organizing for Palestinian rights.
“The Fordham students’ brave fight for Palestinian justice deserved a more respectful hearing than it was given by the Appellate Division. Let’s hope that the Court of Appeals recognizes the moral and legal significance of this case,” said Center for Constitutional Rights cooperating counsel Alan Levine.
The Center for Constitutional Rights, Palestine Legal, and attorney Alan Levine sued Fordham on behalf of four students in April 2017, winning the case in August 2019 when a New York court annulled Fordham’s decision, mandating that the university recognize SJP as an official club.
Fordham appealed the ruling in January 2020, and the appellate division dismissed the case in December. Six amicus briefs in support of the students were filed in the appeal, by Defending Rights & Dissent, Fordham professors, Catholic scholars, Jewish Studies scholars, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education/Pen America Center/ and the National Coalition Against Censorship.
For more information, visit the Center for Constitutional Rights’ case page and Palestine Legal’s case page.