Fordham University recently denied an application from Students for Justice in Palestine to form an official campus organization. As reported by Inside Higher Ed, the dean of students gave the following explanation:
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.
There is perhaps no more complex topic than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is a topic that often leads to polarization rather than dialogue. The purpose of the organization as stated in the proposed club constitution points toward that polarization. Specifically, the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding.
As a private institution, Fordham is not bound by the First Amendment, but the restriction on students' associations certainly seems to violate general principles of academic freedom, including the Joint Statement on Rights and Freedoms of Students, which has been endorsed by the AAUP, Association of American Colleges and Universities, the National Student Association, and other organizations, and which provides:
Students bring to the campus a variety of interests previously acquired and develop many new interests as members of the academic community. They should be free to organize and join associations to promote their common interests. . . .
Students and student organizations should be free to examine and discuss all questions of interest to them, and to express opinions publicly and privately. They should always be free to support causes by orderly means which do not disrupt the regular and essential operation of the institution. At the same time, it should be made clear to the academic and the larger community that in their public expressions or demonstrations students or student organizations speak only for themselves.
Members of the Fordham faculty have submitted a petition seeking revocation of the decision and immediate approval of the SJP application. Of particular significance is this paragraph:
Those of us signing this petition have a range of opinions on issues related to Israel and Palestine, and on the best approach to addressing those issues. Some of us firmly oppose the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS); some of us strongly support it; some of us hold other views. But we all agree that this decision violates basic principles that are essential to the kind of university Fordham purports to be. Students' freedom of speech and freedom of association, including the freedom to advocate for a cause, are central to academic freedom. And academic freedom is a value we treasure as faculty members.
In addition, Palestine Legal has submitted a lengthy letter to the Fordham administration on behalf of SJP, summarizing (in its view) the extended process that led to the denial of recognition. The letter argues that Fordham has "betrayed principles of free speech" and that "the students interested in starting SJP were delayed over a year, interrogated, railroaded and ultimately censored because some students and faculty disagree with SJP’s viewpoint supporting Palestinian rights." It also raises the possibility of litigation under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, and consequent loss of federal funding, due to discrimination based on national origin.
There is, of course, a certain irony to SJP's academic freedom claims, given the organization's own commitment to the boycott of Israeli academic institutions. SJP claims the right of "free inquiry" for itself, but it would deny all other Fordham students the right to hear speakers sponsored by, say, Hebrew University or the Technion. And it extends beyond boycott advocacy. SJP chapters at other campuses, including UC Irvine and Loyola Chicago, have been disciplined for disrupting Israeli speakers, which is a tactic that the Fordham chapter has not (to my knowledge) disavowed.
Nonetheless, academic freedom and free speech principles exist for the protection of everyone, including those who do not adhere to the principles themselves. The Fordham SJP chapter ought to have been granted official status without prior restraint. Disruptive conduct, if any, could be disciplined after the occurrence.