Letter to Fordham President about SJP on campus
CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM
Father Joseph M. McShane, S.J.
Office of the President
441 East Fordham Road
Bronx, NY 10458
Dear Father McShane,
We are writing on behalf of California Scholars for Academic Freedom, a group of over 200 academics from different California institutions of higher education focused on protecting academic freedom and freedom of expression. We wish to express our grave concern over the decision to deny the application by Students for Justice in Palestine to be recognized as a student organization despite meeting all the requirements for recognition and receiving the approval of Fordham’s student government.
You should also beware that, as a recipient of federal funding, Fordham University is required, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, not to discriminate on the basis of the viewpoint of students’ message and/or their national origin. We agree with the findings by the Center for Constitutional Rights that “All evidence indicates that the denial was based on the viewpoint of students’ message and/or their national origin.” Your decision, therefore, is a violation of the students’ rights to free speech and association, the longstanding commitment to justice by Jesuit universities, and the spirit of an open university which protects free inquiry.
Over the decades, there have been hundreds of “Third World” solidarity groups on college and university campuses addressing conflicts not only in the Middle East, but in Southern Africa, Central America, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. While some of these groups could have been seen by many as being somewhat rigid and ideological in their approach to these conflicts, they have played an important role in raising legitimate concerns about justice, particularly as it relates to U.S. foreign policy. More fundamentally, however, they have every right to organize. This is the first time, to our knowledge, that such a group has been denied the right to organize a chapter on the campus of a Jesuit college or university and the first time that a chapter of Students of Justice in Palestine has been denied recognition at any college or university.
Indeed, there is more than a little irony in a Jesuit institution banning a student group with “Justice” in its name. A little over fifteen years ago, Professor Stephen Zunes, one of our board members, represented the University of San Francisco at a series of regional and national conferences on the role of justice in Jesuit higher education. One of the issues emphasized was the important role served by student groups addressing issues of justice in both the United States and around the world, even if not everyone agreed with their specific policy objectives or style of organizing.
Another ironic aspect is your claim that banning SJP was justified on the grounds that their support for boycott, divestment, and sanctions against Israel “presents a barrier to open dialogue.” As I am sure you are aware, the Catholic Church has long supported such tactics, ranging from the boycott of lettuce and grapes in support of farmworkers to divestment and sanctions against apartheid in South Africa. More recently, a number of Catholic institutions and organizations—including the Canadian Jesuits—have divested from companies in the fossil fuel industry. Furthermore, a number of Catholic organizations, including the Conference of Majors Superiors of Men, have also divested from companies supporting the Israeli occupation and illegal settlements.
Regardless of Church history on such matters, banning a student organization in such a manner is a far greater “barrier to open dialogue” than their advocacy of the time-honored tradition of advocating sanctions against governments which violate international legal norms and boycotts and divestment from companies which support such violations.
Similarly troubling is your unfair stereotyping and characterization of pro-Palestinian activists as inherently antagonistic and malicious. As with supporters of the Israeli government, supporters of Palestinian rights vary considerably in their ideology and ways of expressing their views and it is grossly unfair to assume the worst of either.
Yet another disturbing aspect of the Fordham University’s decision is the rationalization that such a group would be “polarizing.” There are countless student organizations in both Jesuit and other institutions that address issues that are considered by many to be “polarizing,” virtually none of which have ever been banned under such a rationale. Indeed, many of key struggles of recent decades—opposition to segregation, the Vietnam War, South African apartheid, the nuclear arms race, U.S. intervention in Central America, Indonesia’s occupation of East Timor, sweatshops and other economic exploitation—were considered “polarizing” at the time.
The right of students to organize events addressing the Israeli occupation is just as important as the right to organize against occupations by Indonesia, Morocco, Russia, or any other country, regardless of individuals or organizations who may disapprove.
With the inauguration in Washington of a president whose commitment to civil liberties is highly questionable, it is particularly important for educational institutions to protect the free speech of their students, especially those who take politically unpopular positions and identify as members of marginalized groups.
California Scholars for Academic Freedom therefore urges you to recognize Students for Justice in Palestine as a legitimate student organization, apologize to the students impacted by your year-long delay and eventual refusal in doing so, and reaffirm Fordham University’s commitment to academic freedom and to students’ rights to free speech and association.
Stephen Zunes, Professor of Politics and Coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies
University of San Francisco email: firstname.lastname@example.org 415-422-6981
Katherine King, Professor Emerita of Comparative Literature and Classics
University of California Los Angeles email: email@example.com
**CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of over 200 scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.
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