A group of students and community members filed a lawsuit Monday against San Francisco State University and its leaders, alleging that the public school has fostered a climate of anti-Semitism “marked by violent threats to the safety of Jewish students on campus.”
“I didn’t have the right to speak on my own campus; I felt afraid as a Jewish student,” said Jacob Mandel, who just graduated from San Francisco State. It wasn’t just that he was being shouted down at events by students politically opposed to Israel, he said in an interview, but that “the administration was actively working against me. … I felt really powerless.”
Dan Ojeda, university counsel for San Francisco State, responded with a brief statement soon after the lawsuit was filed Monday in the U.S. District Court of the Northern District of California: “The University was not aware of the complaint and has not had an opportunity to review or respond to it.
“We have been working closely with the Jewish community, among other interest groups, to address concerns and improve the campus environment for all students. Those efforts have been very productive and will continue notwithstanding this lawsuit.”
The suit comes at a time when Muslims and other groups feel increasingly vulnerable, and as debate heats up over free speech and academic freedom on campuses nationally, after controversial speakers have been canceled, protested and shouted down on some campuses — and have even sparked violence and rioting.
“As we already know with all sorts of free-speech issues on campus, there is a tactic to silence people with whom extreme members of society don’t agree,” said Amanda Berman, director of legal affairs with the Lawfare Project. “There’s a sense that people don’t have a right to speak if certain communities don’t want that message to get out.”
The lawsuit also comes amid rising reports of anti-Semitic acts on college campuses, as well as strong anti-Israel movements at many schools. The Pew Research Center recently reported that while older Americans support Israel rather than Palestinians by at least a 3-to-1 ratio, more than a quarter of millennials support Palestinians and fewer than half support Israel.
The Anti-Defamation League reported a 34 percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents nationally from 2015 to 2016, and a spike of 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017.
Several student groups at San Francisco State complained in May that they had found dozens of posters on campus that they said were racist, Islamophobic, anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian.
Mandel’s perception was that he didn’t have the same rights as any other students on campus simply because he was Jewish. He said he was often stared down, verbally harassed and confronted by people because of his religion and that the administration was dismissive of his formal complaints.
He doesn’t want to target the students who would shut down their events with protests, he said. While he disagrees with their opinions, he said, he supports their right to speak.
“Without this lawsuit, Jewish students will remain marginalized on San Francisco State’s campus,” he said. “Without it, nothing will be done.”
The suit alleges that the school has violated the plaintiffs’ constitutional rights to free speech and equal protection, as well as a provision of the Civil Rights Act.
Lawyers for the students hope the case will set a precedent.
“Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is the underpinning of the modern American ethos of equal protection and anti-discrimination. This case isn’t about Jews, it’s about equal protection under the law,” Brooke Goldstein, director of the Lawfare Project, said in a written statement. “If the courts fail to apply Title VI in this context, we are creating a massive loophole that will ultimately be exploited at some point to target other marginalized minority communities. If we refuse to enforce anti-discrimination law for Jews, if we say Jews don’t deserve equal protection, it will erode constitutional protections for everyone.”
About 2,000 of San Francisco State’s 26,000 undergraduates are Jewish, according to Hillel International.
The lawsuit grew out of a confrontation in April 2016 when Nir Barkat, the mayor of Jerusalem, was invited by SF Hillel to speak. Protesters yelled chants such as “Get the f— off our campus” and “Long live the intifada! Intifada, intifada!” using a microphone and bullhorns to drown out the speaker. Barkat left when police — acting on a “stand-down” order from university officials, according to the lawsuit — did not quiet the protesters.
The lawsuit describes what it calls a decades-long history of anti-Semitism on campus, including the formation of an active Palestinian student group in the early 1970s and an example from 1994 when the suit claims a 10-foot mural appeared on the student union building with “yellow Stars of David intertwined with dollar signs, skulls and crossbones, and the words ‘African Blood.’” According to the lawsuit, “the mural had to be sandblasted, with sixty police officers in riot gear positioned to protect the sandblasters from an angry mob who wanted the mural to be left untouched.”
The suit alleges that Jewish student groups are consistently denied permission to host events or tables promoting their groups on campus, and that when they do host events, they are “systematically shut down by raucous mobs.”
It claims that university leaders promoted free speech when, in 2013, a pro-Palestinian student group wrote two messages around campus: “My heroes have always killed colonizers” and “Resistance is not terrorism,” with a portrait of a woman who hijacked planes holding a machine gun. It claims that the university did not take action when the leader of a pro-Palestinian student group wrote messages several years ago promoting killing online, and when an Israeli student reported violent online threats made against her by a student in one of her classes.
Hillel was not allowed to participate in a “Know Your Rights” event on campus in February intended to help “vulnerable populations who may be feeling targeted in the new political climate in the country since the presidential election,” according to the lawsuit.
The lawsuit says the university’s president promised to “lead a universitywide effort to seek solutions to the anti-Semitism on this campus” in May, but that university leaders have failed to follow through on similar statements in the past.
The lawsuit seeks, among other things, an injunction to enjoin the university from penalizing, discriminating against or violating the free speech of Jewish students and community members; and damages for discrimination and emotional distress.
Lawrence M. Hill, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a written statement: “When our Universities, that are supposed to be institutions of tolerance and freedom of expression, foment prejudice and suppresses free speech we cannot stand idly by.
“College students are America’s future. Their minds shouldn’t be poisoned with hate and their voices shouldn’t be silenced by a mob.”
Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey contributed to this report, which appeared originally in the Washington Post.