Students file lawsuit to stop UMass Israel, Palestine panel

  • Roger Waters, left, and Linda Sarsour. AP PHOTOS

Staff Writer
Published: 4/26/2019 9:32:20 AM

AMHERST — A group of University of Massachusetts Amherst students is seeking an emergency preliminary injunction in Suffolk Superior Court to stop an event titled “Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights” from being held on campus on May 4, contending that it is anti-Semitic.

The lawsuit, filed this week by Concord attorney Karen Hurvitz on behalf of three students who are identified only as John Doe 1, 2 and 3, will be heard in Suffolk Superior Court at 2 p.m. Monday.

The panel for the event, which will be held at the Fine Arts Center, features Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, an outspoken advocate for Palestinian rights; Palestinian-American political activist Linda Sarsour, the co-chair of the Women’s March; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor and political commentator who CNN fired last year for remarks he gave at the United Nations in support of Palestinian rights and a boycott of Israel; and Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine who is himself Jewish and has been a vocal critic of the Israeli government.

Hurvitz said in an interview Friday that she views the event, sponsored by the Media Education Foundation of Northampton, as a “hate-fest” that violates university policies against expressions of hate on campus, meets the U.S. Department of Education’s definition of anti-Semitism and stands in contradiction to the university’s opposition to academic boycotts of any kind, including the boycott, divestment and sanctions, or BDS movement, against Israel. 

“Students want it moved off campus so they can feel safe and protected on campus,” Hurvitz said of the need for an injunction, adding that those students intend to remain anonymous because of what she argues is a “hostile atmosphere” on campus.

Sut Jhally, executive director of the Media Education Foundation and a communications professor at UMass, says that the lawsuit is part of ongoing “propaganda” aimed at silencing voices that criticize Israel.

“This lawsuit makes clear that the backlash against this event is about censoring and silencing pro-Palestinian voices,” Jhally said. “From the start, the deluge of unsubstantiated and slanderous claims of anti-Semitism has been a deflection away from actually engaging in real discussion and debate about Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.”

Jhally added that attempts at silencing people with different viewpoints will not work.

“Fortunately, more and more people are seeing through these transparent attempts to change the subject and demanding that these other voices be heard,” he said.

The lawsuit was filed against the members of the UMass Board of Trustees, UMass President Marty Meehan and UMass Amherst Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy.

UMass spokesman Edward Blaguszewski referred the Gazette to a statement on the UMass website noting that a private foundation has rented the Fine Arts Center and that no taxpayer or university funds are supporting the program.

That statement is identical to one Subbaswamy used in response to concerns from the AMCHA Initiative, a California-based organization that is described as seeking “to investigate, document, educate about, and combat anti-Semitism at institutions of higher education in the United States.”

In the response to AMCHA, Subbaswamy wrote that, even though the Department of Communication and the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies are sponsoring the event, that doesn’t mean those departments are endorsing its content.

“Departmental sponsorship of various types of events does not constitute an endorsement of the views expressed at those proceedings, rather it is an endorsement of the exploration of complex and sometimes difficult topics,” Subbaswamy wrote. “Promoting the free exchange of ideas is one of the most important functions of the university.”

In addition, Subbaswamy wrote to AMCHA: “UMass Amherst is committed to fostering a community of dignity and respect and rejects all forms of bigotry. The campus is also firmly committed to the principles of free speech and academic freedom. As such, and as is required of a public institution under the First Amendment, UMass Amherst applies a content-neutral standard when making facilities available to outside organizations for the purpose of holding events.”

Many individuals and organizations voiced opposition to the event, including the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, the president of the Student Alliance for Israel at UMass, and B’nai B’rith International. Hurvitz said she also has spoken to numerous students and alumni who worry about the content of the presentation.

The event also has received the support of a host of other individuals and organizations who signed a letter written by the UMass Amherst chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Among those signers are some UMass Amherst faculty, Jewish Voice for Peace Western Mass and other campus Students for Justice in Palestine chapters.

The lawsuit states that “fliers announcing the event have been posted around campus for weeks, making Jewish students fearful and intimidated” and that if the event were to go on as scheduled, there could be a rise in anti-Semitic acts on campus.

“Plaintiffs and other Jewish students will suffer even more hostility and be the subject of more anti-Semitism than they have already suffered if the university sponsors and hosts this event on its campus,” the lawsuit reads.

Hurvitz told the Gazette she has concerns about “toxic viewpoints” and speakers tarnishing the Hate Has No Home campaign on campus.

“If a group of students feels justifiably intimidated, the university is not living up to its commitment,” Hurvitz said. “It’s our hope that the court will see this for what it is, not an exercise in academic freedom, as the university spokespeople are saying, but sponsorship by three faculty departments of an event in which panelists are not interested in hearing from the other side.” (In addition to the Department of Communication and the Department of Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies, the Resistance Studies Initiative UMASS also is sponsoring the event.) 

But Jeremy Earp, the Media Education Foundation’s production director, contends that panels with a perspective are not unusual and that the event itself is an attempt to push back against the “overwhelmingly one-sided narrative about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that’s dominated U.S. media for decades.”

The point of the event, Earp said, was to “simply allow pro-Palestinian voices to be heard.”

William C. Newman, director of the Western Regional Office of the American Civil Liberties Union, referenced the First Amendment in a comment from the ACLU, saying that “our state Constitution provides robust protection for speech and inquiry.”

“While the ACLU recognizes that controversial speech can sometimes cause discomfort,” Newman added, “censorship is not the answer.”

With reporting by Dusty Christensen

Scott Merzbach can be reached at
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