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Liberal politicians fail to block anti-Israel student conference at UCLA

Encouraging students that Zionism ‘can be destroyed’

UCLA found itself caught in an odd place recently: between its student government and First Amendment experts on one side, and a liberal congressman and city council on the other.

The public university refused to cancel a conference hosted by a student organization with a history of harassing Jewish students. But it issued a legal threat to the sponsors, claiming their flyers violated UCLA trademarks and could be construed as threats to Jews.

National Students for Justice in Palestine held its annual conference this past weekend at UCLA. It aimed to convince attendees that “Zionism” – sometimes seen as code for Israel – “is a human ideology and a set of laws that have been challenged and can be destroyed.”

Critics protested soon after SJP announced in August that its conference would happen at UCLA. They called its conference description “problematic” and “hateful,” according to The Algemeiner.

UCLA has received significant backlash from all sides, including one of its own law professors, who told The College Fix its legal arguments against the flyers were faulty.

“The university should affirm its commitment to the freedom of speech, provide the security necessary to make sure that no one acts violently towards anyone else, and let the NSJP hold the conference,” Eugene Volokh, a First Amendment expert, said in a phone interview before the conference.

MORE: NSJP to explain how to ‘dismantle’ Zionism at UCLA

Group’s members admire Hitler?

Jewish groups have long accused SJP chapters of promoting violence against “Zionists,” disrupting pro-Israel events, glorifying the work of terrorists and trying to silence their critics.

NSJP tried to prevent a repeat of 2017’s conference at the University of Houston, where several audio recordings were leaked and posted online, by not accepting UCLA student fees.

The Forward reported that not taking student money allowed the organizers to limit registration to “students who have been vouched for by other SJP members,” though the campus chapter still received free event space.

A petition began circulating last month urging UCLA to cancel the conference or “be held accountable,” drawing nearly 36,000 signatures as of Monday night.

Complaints and fears about the conference spread far beyond campus when Los Angeles-area congressman Brad Sherman urged Chancellor Gene Block to cancel it.

In an Oct. 11 letter, the liberal Democrat cited past events that cast shadows on NSJP’s reputation, including its UCLA chapter’s shutdown of a Students Supporting Israel event this spring. Sherman pointed to the “anti-Semitic rhetoric on social media” by SJP members nationwide, “ranging from calling for the annihilation of the Jewish people, to admiration of Adolf Hitler.”

He also complained that the organizers could functionally shut out Jewish students, a large campus presence, with the restricted registration. Sherman’s office responded to an initial Fix request for an interview but did not respond to suggested interview times.

MORE: UC-Irvine sanctions anti-Israel group for disruptive behavior

Block replied Oct. 15 by condemning anti-Semitism and violence but saying the university couldn’t discriminate against SJP, noting UCLA wasn’t a sponsor and student fees weren’t being used.

“As you are aware, we are bound by the First Amendment and cannot bar an activity based on the viewpoints of our students,” said Block.

Asked for comment, Rabbi Aaron Lerner of UCLA’s Hillel chapter sent The Fix a statement from the Anti-Defamation League.

While it affirmed its commitment to free speech, the statement called upon the administration to “strongly condemn the divisive and hateful rhetoric and the aggressive tactics attributed to SJP and ensure that UCLA is a safe and inclusive space for those who are Jewish and/or pro-Israel.”

The university must “take whatever steps necessary to ensure that all UCLA communities are treated with respect, free from vilification and harassment,” it continued, listing NSJP’s past actions.

Lerner also passed along a message to the campus from Darion Ouliguian, president of Bruins for Israel, encouraging students to get involved in the Jewish community programs.

“Our programming is not intended to ‘combat’ or ‘debate’ the anti-Zionists,” Ouliguian wrote:

They don’t deserve that legitimization. They offer no path forward, no vision for a future that reconciles the reality on the ground. Their efforts are focused solely on demonization and disruption, and we will not dignify their rejectionism.

UCLA doesn’t own the ‘concept of a bear’

The university was less tolerant of SJP’s advertising for the event, however.

In an Oct. 31 cease-and-desist letter to NSJP, UCLA said the group’s website used UCLA’s name without authorization and made “an attempt to associate SJP with the UCLA mascot of the Bruin Bear in a logo/digital poster for the national conference.”

It must stop using UCLA’s name except to indicate the location of the conference, and make the size of the font letters no larger than any other font on the page, the letter said. It also claimed the “artistic renditions of the Bruin Bear” playing with a “Palestinian kite” must be removed, because “some may interpret [it] as an intention to endorse violence against Israel.”

The ACLU and Palestine Legal responded Nov. 7, saying the university’s arguments fail “as a matter of fact and law.” UCLA simply “cannot claim exclusive rights to the image or concept of a bear.”

“Your attempts to stifle SJP also seem motivated entirely by opposition to its political viewpoint,” the letter continued. “Your attempts to chill SJP’s speech violate the First Amendment.”

The organizers did agree to remove “UCLA” from the poster “in the spirit of cooperation,” but expect the university to “enact policies and practices to ensure that the University’s trademark cannot be used to silence non-commercial, First Amendment protected speech,” the letter concluded.

MORE: Columbia students shout down Israel’s ambassador to UN

Volokh, the UCLA law professor (left), told The Fix that UCLA is focusing on the flyers and the bear because officials know the university can’t exclude groups based on their beliefs.

“The First Amendment means that a university can’t exclude groups from its property based on their viewpoint, be they anti-Israel, anti-Jewish, anti-Palestinian, or anything else,” he said. “That some members affiliated with a group have engaged in supposed ‘harassment’ in the past can’t justify the university excluding the group from future events.”

The bear symbol, meanwhile, is also used to represent California as a whole, Volokh said.

“Just because Hamas has used kites to attack Israel doesn’t mean that the university can ban use of kites on posters for pro-Palestinian events,” he said. “A university can’t ban people from harshly condemning foreign countries, or even supporting violence against those countries, if that’s what the kite symbolizes.”

NSJP called UCLA’s threat letter a “racist and gross mischaracterization of our design,” saying the university wants to “taint imagery that is grounded in freedom and liberation.”

A kite is a “children’s toy” and the bear is “not trademarked,” the group wrote: “The stated demands are ridiculous, and we will continue to use both design elements.”

‘Inappropriate’ to host so soon after Pittsburgh massacre

The Los Angeles City Council entered the fray Nov. 6, approving a resolution that echoes Rep. Sherman’s arguments and offering “support for any administrative action” that can be taken to shut down the conference.

“[I]t is never a good time to have this type of event, but given the atmosphere in the country, including the recent shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue and arson at synagogues in New York, it is inappropriate for UCLA to host such a conference,” the resolution reads. The same day, Jewish students organized a protest through the group Yad Yamin.

Councilmember Paul Koretz sent The Fix a joint press release with Sherman in response to an interview request.

The objection is not to the free speech of conference organizers, “but, rather, that SJP and its members have a record of threatening violence and posting hate speech against Jews and drawing on Nazi propaganda on social media,” the release said, citing Title VI of the Civil Rights Act.

In a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times, Koretz wrote that the conference ought to be postponed because the timing was “potentially dangerous and sends a terrible message”:

The Jewish community in Los Angeles is looking at how to increase security at Jewish institutions. At such a time, bringing a group of unidentified people who support a virulently anti-Zionist organization is deeply concerning to those fearful about the safety of the Jewish community in Los Angeles.

The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education ridiculed the resolution as “internally incoherent … recognizing that the university has First Amendment obligations while demanding that the conference be canceled, First Amendment be damned.”

MORE: UCLA discovers 1st Amendment after student’s anti-Semitic post

Criticisms of Israel “encompass political expression unquestionably protected under the First Amendment,” which “does not abide guilt by association or the foreclosure of speech rights because of past bad acts,” it said.

The Undergraduate Students Association Council shot back a week later, unanimously approving a resolution sponsored by the USAC president, other officials and pro-Palestine groups at multiple UC campuses.

It defended NSJP’s right to host the conference at UCLA and denounced the city council for pressuring the university to “infringe on the rights of student groups” and for using “gross generalizations.”

Campus Jewish magazine Ha’Am reported that USAC members and the public objected to its livestreaming of the Nov. 13 public proceedings, claiming that it infringed on the “privacy and safety” of resolution supporters. Melissa Morris, politics editor for the Daily Bruin, captured this dispute in a series of tweets.

The magazine agreed to not record most public comments while asserting its constitutional right to do so, and USAC approved the resolution in a private vote, Ha’Am reported. It noted the final version of the resolution did not mention the Palestinian kite in the flyer.

MORE: NSJP attendance allegedly plummets following dossiers on activists

IMAGE: National Students for Justice in Palestine, UCLA

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About the Author
Allegra Thatcher -- Franciscan University of Steubenville