Attorneys target UC Berkeley student groups’ ban on Zionist speakers

A federal civil rights complaint accuses UC Berkeley of an “act of discrimination against the Jewish community” by allowing law school student groups to adopt bylaws refusing to invite speakers who support Zionism.

The complaint filed last week by attorneys Gabriel Groisman and Arsen Ostrovsky equates anti-Zionism, which challenges the state of Israel’s right to exist in the region of Palestine, with antisemitism.

Supporters of Palestinian rights say their opposition is targeted not at the Jewish people but at the Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.

Law Students for Justice in Palestine, a Berkeley graduate student group that describes itself as a “home for education, discussion, and activism promoting the rights of the Palestinian people,” in August adopted a bylaw in its constitution stating that it “will not invite speakers that have expressed and continued to hold views or host/sponsor/promote events in support of Zionism, the apartheid state of Israel, and the occupation of Palestine.”

The bylaw was also adopted by a number of other student groups, setting off a flurry of criticism, including condemnations from UC Berkeley Law Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and UC Board of Regents Chair Richard Leib.

“Let me be clear: In our university community we should not be excluding students in any manner because they believe in the right of Israel to exist,” Leib said at a board meeting in San Francisco last week. “This exclusion is absolutely inconsistent with the central mission of the University of California.”

In an opinion piece for The Times, Chemerinsky said he believed “the bylaw was inconsistent with our values as a law school” but added that student groups’ 1st Amendment right to choose speakers based on their viewpoints was a “relatively straightforward” legal and constitutional matter.

“For most Jews, including me, the existence of Israel and Zionism are an important part of our Jewish identity, and the bylaw was felt as antisemitism,” he wrote.

“Of course, student groups can decide what speakers to include based on their views,” he wrote. “Obviously, a college Republicans’ group could decide only to invite conservative speakers. To require student groups to invite speakers of views they loathe would violate the 1st Amendment as a form of compelled speech.”

“I wish student groups would not adopt such policies, but a public university cannot prohibit them,” he wrote.

The University of California Board of Regents has addressed the issue in the past. In 2016, it condemned antisemitism and “antisemitic forms” of anti-Zionism.

Both Lieb and Chemerinsky noted that since the bylaws were adopted this year, students of color and Jewish and Muslim students have been harassed.

Chemerinsky wrote that “outside agitators” seized on the media attention around the bylaws to target students.

In one instance, he wrote, a “right-wing group” outfitted a truck with a billboard that said, “If you want a Jewish Free Berkeley, raise your right hand,” next to a picture of Adolf Hitler.

Another truck drove by displaying the names of members of student groups that had adopted the bylaw under a banner that read “Berkeley Law’s Antisemitic Class of 2023,” Chemerinsky wrote, calling the targeting of students “despicable.”

In the complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education, Groisman and Ostrovsky said the bylaw violates Title VI of the federal Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin at programs that receive federal assistance.

Chemerinsky declined to comment on the specifics of the complaint but said that “those who claim that the bylaw is religious discrimination miss the point that it is written in terms of viewpoint, not religion.”

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