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NYCLU Threatens to Sue Columbia University Over Student Group Suspension

NEW YORK Representing the Columbia University chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), the New York Civil Liberties Union today announced it sent a letter to Columbia University administrators demanding that they reverse the unlawful suspension of the two student groups for engaging in peaceful protest. The letter also calls on the university to reinstate both SJP and JVP chapters immediately. The university has until March 1, 2024 to respond before the NYCLU is prepared to move forward with legal action.

“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 likes to showcase itself to the world as a champion of student protest, equality, justice, and free speech — but the university’s actions in the lead up to our suspension, and its targeted punishment of our student groups, showed that it is all a farce,” said Safiya O’Brien, an organizer with Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. “As students of conscience, we know injustice when we see it. The university’s priorities are not with its student body — certainly not with its Palestinian students and the overwhelming number of those that advocate for them.”

“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.”

This action follows Columbia University’s choice to single out and unlawfully suspend SJP and JVP for participating in a peaceful student demonstration and temporary art installation in support of Palestinian rights late last year. 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. The letter details 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.

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