According to Columbia University’s Rules of Conduct, the Ivy League school on Manhattan’s Upper West Side “cannot and will not rule any subject or form of expression out of order on the ground that it is objectionable, offensive, immoral or untrue.”
Unfortunately, the principle does not seem to have been fully operative at Columbia’s highly ranked law school, where an application for formal recognition of Law Students Against Antisemitism was rejected because a majority of the student senate disapproved of its definition of antisemitism.
When Marie-Alice Legrande, who is not Jewish, and several friends decided to form Law Students Against Antisemitism, they expected to fill an obvious need, bringing Jewish and non-Jewish students together to “raise awareness and educate about both historical and contemporary antisemitism.”
They had no idea that their proposal would draw furious opposition from people identifying themselves as “Concerned Jewish Students at CLS” and “Jewish pro-Palestine students,” who objected to its incorporation of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Working Definition of Antisemitism.
They were shocked when a majority of the law school’s student senate voted to deny them formal recognition, spurred by an inflammatory and misleading letter from the so-called concerned students.
Even worse, the Law Students Against Antisemitism students got no help from the law school administration in dealing with a blatant case of viewpoint discrimination.
The LSAA students chose the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s definition because it has been adopted in dozens of countries, a majority of American states and Canadian provinces and over 1,000 global institutions and organizations.
The letter nonetheless condemned it as “pernicious and insidious,” claiming that it dangerously “conflates anti-Zionism” with antisemitism and accusing the LSAA students of contributing to efforts to suppress and silence pro-Palestinian students.
The LSAA students had reason for optimism when their application for recognition came before the student senate on Jan. 23. The histrionic opposition letter was filled with dire and unsupported predictions. It was a fine exemplar of what the Chronicle of Higher Education called “the hyperbolic style in American academe.”
The letter was signed only by “Concerned Jewish Students at CLS,” although it had been copied to the email addresses of four members of the Progressive Jewish Law Society.
In contrast, the LSAA application included over 40 members, with an executive board equally divided among Jewish and non-Jewish students. Additionally, a supportive letter was submitted from 78 students.
Senate President Justin Onwenu told me “it’s rare” for a club to be denied approval. An LSAA member said that most approvals take only about five minutes.
This meeting lasted an hour and was dominated by Progressive Jewish Law Society members’ antagonistic objections to the IHRA definition. As one LSAA member told the student newspaper, there were “false accusations, character assassinations, insinuations, or direct statements that we were trying to shut down speech [and] endangering other students.” Another member complained to me they were subjected to “hostile comments” and “accusations of nefarious purposes.”
The IHRA definition was expressly created only for educational use and was never intended to be enforceable in any setting. It includes illustrative examples of antisemitism, such as “mendacious, dehumanizing, [or] demonizing” stereotypes, allegations of surreptitious Jewish conspiracies and Holocaust denial.
The definition appends examples of anti-Zionist rhetoric or caricatures that may amount to antisemitism, while emphatically stating that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
Used properly, the IHRA working definition can be a valuable educational tool. It has also been misused and even weaponized on occasion — as could happen with definitions of racism, antisemitism or bigotry — but it was unfair for the progressive students to impute malign intentions to the LSAA organizers.
Whatever anyone thinks of the IHRA definition, law students should unquestionably have the right to advocate it. As the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression stated in a Feb. 2 letter to the student senate and Columbia administrators, the “apparent viewpoint-based rejection of LSAA “contradicts the university’s commitment to free expression and must be corrected.” Indeed, of nine organizations that sought recognition this academic year, only LSAA’s application was denied.
Prof. Joshua Mitts, faculty advisor to LSAA, likewise told me: “Whether one agrees or disagrees with the IHRA definition of antisemitism, I find it troubling that the student senate might use recognition . . . to facilitate viewpoint discrimination, regardless of the merits of a given group’s ideology or beliefs.”
Two members of the Progressive Jewish Law Society told me that they had not objected to recognizing LSAA. Student Senate President Justin Onwenu told me that he was disappointed by the negative vote and hoped that LSAA would resubmit its application.
Resubmission to the student senate turned out to be the only route for the LSAA students to obtain formal recognition, with access to law school funding and facilities, as the administration would not intervene.
In a series of emails, Dean Gillian Lester declined my request to criticize or comment on the student senate’s apparent viewpoint discrimination. When I asked if the administration intended to take steps to assist LSAA, she replied that “this is a student-governed process” that is ongoing.
The students’ authority over club recognition, however, is delegated from the law school. The administration cannot disclaim its accountability for what one faculty member described to me as a “hecklers’ veto.”
A spokesperson for Columbia Law told Jewish Insider only that the school “stands firmly against all forms of bigotry, hate and discrimination, including antisemitism,” and “Dean Gillian Lester has reiterated the Law School’s commitment to fostering a community where people can freely learn, live, work and express themselves in letters to the Law School and Columbia communities.”
The student senate held a revote Sunday, finally rescinding its shameful exercise of viewpoint discrimination, thanks to Onwenu’s admirable leadership.
“I’m pleased we were able to approve this group,” he said, “and have a spirited discussion about our community’s values.”
Even so, the LSAA students have been put through nearly three weeks of turmoil and harassment, unable to reserve rooms or schedule events without words of encouragement or reassurance directly from the dean. One member described the ordeal as “very taxing on mental health.”
Lester’s laissez-faire approach to free expression will soon have to change. Just last week, the American Bar Association enacted a new accreditation standard requiring law schools to adopt written policies that “protect the rights of faculty, students and staff to communicate ideas that may be controversial or unpopular.”
That would place responsibility squarely on the law school administration. The expressive rights of some students must not be subject to the political objections of others.
Steven Lubet is the Williams Memorial Professor Emeritus at the Northwestern University Pritzker School of Law.
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