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NYCLU and Palestine Legal Sue Columbia University Over Student Group Suspension

NEW YORK, NY The New York Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal today announced a lawsuit against Columbia University for the unlawful suspension of its chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) for engaging in peaceful protest.

“Universities should be havens for robust debate, discussion, and learning — not sites of censorship where administrators, donors, and politicians squash political discourse they don’t approve of,” said Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “These student groups were peacefully speaking out on a critical global conflict, only to have Columbia University ignore their own longstanding, existing rules and abruptly suspend the organizations. That’s retaliatory, it’s targeted, and it flies in the face of the free speech principles that institutes of higher learning should be defending. Students protesting at private colleges still have the right to fair, equal treatment — and we are ready to fight that battle in court.”

“Columbia University has a robust history of peaceful protest, from 1968 to 1985, that it now champions solely in retrospect and when convenient,” said Maryam Alwan, an organizer with Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. “Ivy League institutions should not attract students who value justice and equality if they do not want to be held accountable for the ideals that they claim to uphold. As a Palestinian-American student, I should have the same right to speak out on my campus as everyone else—and no amount of targeted policy changes or illegitimate suspensions will prevent us from advocating for the Palestinian people.”

“Columbia must protect all Jewish students and voices, not just those adhering to a specific political belief,” said Cameron Jones, an organizer with Columbia’s chapter of Jewish Voice for Peace. “The university’s decision to suspend a Jewish group sets a concerning precedent for safeguarding free speech on college campuses. It not only took away our rights as a club, but told us that our university does not support or respect anti-Zionist Jews or their beliefs. This suspension has not and will not hinder our organizing efforts, though — as Jews, we acknowledge the significant privilege we hold regarding this issue and are committed to exerting every effort to maintain pressure on our institution until they enact the concrete changes we need.”

“For decades, Columbia students have been at the forefront of speaking out against segregation, war and apartheid and SJP and JVP sit squarely in this tradition,” said Radhika Sainath, Palestine Legal Senior Staff Attorney. “It is precisely because these principled students pose a threat to the status quo that they are being targeted for McCarthyist censorship, but the law does not allow it. Universities must abide by their own rules and may not punish student groups speaking out for Palestinian rights in the moment when they are most essential – even if donors and lobby groups complain.”

This action follows the NYCLU’s letter to Columbia University administrators sent on February 29th, calling on them to reinstate both SJP and JVP chapters immediately after singling out and unlawfully suspending both groups for participating in a peaceful student demonstration and temporary art installation in support of Palestinian rights.

While private universities in New York are not bound by the First Amendment, New York’s highest court has established that the disciplinary actions of any university in New York against its students or student organizations must proceed in accordance with the university’s own rules and guidelines. There were several instances in which the university violated its own policies in order to punish SJP and JVP, as well as baselessly and irresponsibly accusing the groups of threats and intimidation — raising grave concerns that its actions were improperly motivated by the student groups’ political stance in support of Palestinian rights.

NYCLU attorneys bringing the challenge include Veronica Salama, Camara Hudson, Lourdes Chavez, Lupe Victoria Aguirre, and Christopher Dunn. Attorneys from Palestine Legal include Radhika Sainath and Sabiya Ahamed.

Visit the case page for additional materials.

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