‘None of my First-Amendment-Defender colleagues’ have weighed in
The George Washington University Law School wants to investigate an alleged act of anti-Semitism by the president of the student government.
One of its own professors wants it to butt out.
John Banzhaf, who teaches public interest law at GWU, told The College Fix Tuesday that this move by the administration amounts to a resurrection of its “anonymous snitch program” that he helped kill 16 years ago.
The controversy involves Ali Kingston, president of the Student Bar Association, and her private conversation in September with another student about the Jewish Law Student Association.
The group had allegedly failed to include required language on a poster advertising an event featuring alcohol. Members of the JLSA accused of her of saying: “Tell your Jew friends, I’m coming for them, they need to stop violating the alcohol policy.”
After the SBA Senate voted to demand Kingston’s resignation last week, Associate Dean of Students Elizabeth Ewert asked it to drop its “ad hoc” process and refer the matter to “the university bias reporting process,” an administration spokesperson told the legal blog Above the Law.
Banzhaf told The Fix this move could have a “chilling effect on free speech and academic freedom,” particularly since it could result in discipline against a student for a private conversation.
“So far, none of my First-Amendment-Defender colleagues have said or done anything about this,” even though the law school is “full of professors who preach and write about the need to protect free speech,” he wrote in an email.
Responding to accusation ‘why do you hate the Jews?’
Kingston denies using the “Jew friends” language and refused to step down on Monday, the deadline the Senate gave her, according to a GW Hatchet report Tuesday afternoon.
She said the Senate and student body were scheduled to question her at a “special meeting” Tuesday night.
According to an email from Kingston to law students obtained by the Hatchet, she was responding to a student who asked her “why do you hate the Jews?” Kingston replied “I do not hate the Jews.”
While she apologized for “completely fail[ing] to appreciate the consequences of my word choice,” Kingston is not planning to resign based on her colleagues’ wishes. One option under consideration is a “school-wide referendum” on her presidency, Kingston said. The Student Bar Association not respond to Fix queries.
Before Kingston was publicly associated with the “Jew friends” allegation, the JLSA had simply asked her to apologize to them “privately,” and she “apparently” did, according to Above the Law.
The president of the Student Bar Association did not step down Monday night, the resignation deadline she faced from the SBA Senate following allegations that she made an insensitive remark about a Jewish student organization https://t.co/j30wA639qO
— The GW Hatchet (@gwhatchet) October 30, 2018
The blog published a JLSA statement that said Kingston was supposed to apologize at an Oct. 22 “closed session” of the Senate, but her “brief statement” at the meeting “did not include an apology or take ownership” of her alleged “Jew friends” comment.
In Tuesday’s Hatchet report, the newspaper said both JLSA and Senate members went public because her private apology was “not satisfactory.”
In her Friday statement, Kingston apologized for “the pain and hurt I have caused” but said she had only “offhandedly” refer to JLSA as “the Jews” when talking about the alcohol violation.
The JLSA and Student Bar Association did not respond to Fix requests for comment.
Opening the door to wide-ranging bias investigations
The university’s attempt to take over the matter was supported by the SBA executive committee, according to Above the Law, which published a statement by a committee member.
That person said the Senate had “jeopardized” the entire executive by acting on “mere accusation, and without investigation,” and in likely violation of the Senate constitution. Kingston’s alleged violation involved the code of conduct and thus should be investigated by university officials.
Banzhaf told The Fix that this would be the wrong move because Kingston’s alleged comments involve “law student politics” and are best dealt with by the student government.
“[T]here is even less need to have a formal university investigation, and to ask the students to stop addressing the matter while that secret investigation continues,” he wrote.
Students at GWU should not have “lesser protections” for even “derogatory” speech about Jews than students at public universities, where the First Amendment applies, he said.
It’s a slippery slope from anti-Semitic comments to private criticism of Israel, which “could be construed as derogatory of Jewish people,” Banzhaf continued:
Similarly, criticism of the Catholic church – e.g., of priest sex abuses, its opposition to birth control, etc. – could likewise result in a referral to bias investigators, as could arguments that all men are potential rapists and/or are only after one thing in mind could arguably constitute bias against males.
The administration did not respond to an email from The Fix. A person in the media relations office who answered the phone Tuesday said the school had seen the email from The Fix and that the Kingston controversy was “definitely on our radar.”
The person asked for further questions to be emailed, but a subsequent Fix email was not returned.
CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, the original article misattributed an unreturned request for comment. The Student Bar Association did not respond to the request. The article has also been amended to clarify that the media relations office did not follow up with The Fix after an initial phone call.