Students in New York rebuffed in effort to establish pro-Palestinian club

Administration officials denied an application from students at Fordham University to form a university-recognized chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), citing the potential for controversy. The university is also alleged to have retaliated against students who protested the decision. 

Key Players 

Keith Eldredge is Fordham’s dean of students. Eldredge denied an application from students seeking to form a university-recognized chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. 

Ahmad Awad, Sofia Dadap, Sapphira Lurie, and Julie Norris are Fordham students who sued Fordham University for denying their application to form an SJP chapter on campus.

Further Details

On Dec. 22, 2016, Eldredge denied an application from students who sought to form a chapter of SJP at Fordham. Eldredge claimed the group’s anti-Israel political stances conflicted with Fordham’s “mission and values.” In an email announcing the decision, he wrote, “While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the university,” reports Inside Higher Ed (IHE)He added that the Israel-Palestine issue “often leads to polarization rather than dialogue.”

Two civil rights and legal advocacy organizations, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights, included Eldredge’s email in an 11-page joint letter to Fordham’s president, Reverend Joseph McShane, according to IHE. The letter noted that four Fordham students — three who identify as Muslim and one Palestinian American — first petitioned Fordham to create a campus chapter of SJP in November 2015, using a pro forma process that is normally resolved within weeks. “All evidence indicates that the denial,” which came more than a year later, “was based on the viewpoint of students’ message and/or their national origin,” the letter argued. “The denial violates free speech and association principles, the university’s commitment to protect free inquiry, and could give rise to a violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act,” a statute that bars discrimination based on race, color, or nation of origin. 

Fordham spokesperson Bob Howe responded to the letter with a statement that said, in part, “Fordham has no registered student clubs the sole focus of which is the political agenda of one nation, against another nation. For the university’s purposes, the country of origin of the student organizers is irrelevant, as is their particular political stance. The narrowness of Students for Justice in Palestine’s political focus makes it more akin to a lobbying group than a student club. Regardless of the club’s status, students, faculty and staff are of course free to voice their opinions on Palestine, or any other issue.”

After students organized a peaceful rally in January 2017 to protest Fordham’s decision, Eldredge notified Lurie, a senior he had appointed as the liaison for the rally, that she had violated the school’s demonstration policy. He said the group had not received written approval for the gathering, but according to Lurie, no one had ever indicated to her that the rally was unsanctioned. Eldredge summoned her to a “hearing” in his office but denied her request to have a third party present. Lurie left in protest when he also dismissed her request to keep the door open during the session, reported Palestine Legal. The students interpreted his actions as retaliation for their persistence in attempting to establish an SJP chapter at Fordham.


Lawsuit filed against Fordham University, litigation ongoing

On April 26, 2017, Palestine Legal and the Center for Constitutional Rights filed a lawsuit against Fordham on behalf of four students — Awad, Dadap, Lurie, and Norris — as a special proceeding under Article 78 of the New York Civil Practice Law and Rules, according to Palestine Legal. The lawsuit alleged that the students had been unlawfully blocked from creating an SJP chapter on campus and stonewalled by Fordham administration officials, including Eldredge and Dorothy Wenzel, the school’s director of the Office of Student Leadership and Community Development. On June 5, 2017, Fordham filed a motion to dismiss the suit. A month later, the students filed a reply to Fordham’s motion to dismiss, alleging that the university had acted “arbitrarily, capriciously, and in bad faith,” as well as violated its own Free Speech policy, according to Palestine Legal. On Jan. 3, 2018, the students’ case was heard at the Manhattan Civil Courthouse in New York. According to The Intercept, Fordham’s lawyers argued that the First Amendment does not apply at the university, because it is a private institution. As of Jan. 18, 2018, no decision had been reached by the court. At least one of the four plaintiffs, Awad, is now a graduate of the university. 

Another Addition

According to Palestine Legal, attorneys on May 8, 2019, asked a New York State Supreme Court judge to allow a new student petitioner, sophomore Veer Shetty, to join the lawsuit against Fordham University. The suit remains ongoing.