July 10, 2002

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State of unrest
In pursuing criminal charges against students who participated in last May's pro-Israel rally and counterdemonstration, SFSU administrators do their best impersonation of thought police.

By Camille T. Taiara

LAST SPRING STUDENTS for Justice in Palestine led a peaceful sit-in at UC Berkeley on the anniversary of Jewish paramilitaries' 1948 massacre of more than 100 Arab civilians at Deir Yassin, in the British mandate of Palestine. The sit-in was to coincide with activities planned nationwide that launched Israel divestment campaigns at more than 40 campuses.

In Berkeley, though, school officials reacted with unprecedented severity: 79 people were arrested – 41 of them students. The UC administration filed criminal charges against those arrested, threatened to suspend the students, and temporarily rescinded Students for Justice in Palestine's right to operate as a student group. The northern California chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union issued an open letter to the chancellor in response, citing the "chilling effects" of the university's actions on freedom of speech.

Now the First Amendment may be taking one more hit on another Bay Area campus.

Three San Francisco State University students face possible suspension and hate crime charges for actions that, by most indications, fall squarely within the parameters of constitutionally protected free expression.

On May 7, San Francisco Hillel sponsored a rally at SFSU's Malcolm X Plaza, titled "We Stand with Israel: Now and Forever," that attracted roughly 400 pro-Israel students and community members. About 75 activists held a counterdemonstration behind police barricades, where the General Union of Palestine Students and other student groups had set up a mock refugee camp and memorial for Palestinians killed during the Israeli occupation.

Versions vary as to the day's events, and neither the university nor the District Attorney's Office will release any evidence. But one thing is clear: tempers flared on both sides. Protesters traded racist insults, and once the pro-Israel speakers had finished and most participants had dispersed, a confrontation took place during which one pro-Palestine student reportedly tore down a photocopy of the Israeli flag from the podium and stomped on it.

There were no reports of physical violence. No one was arrested. Yet three students, two pro-Palestine and one pro-Israel, face academic discipline and criminal prosecution. GUPS has been placed on probation for a year, and Hillel has received a warning. What's more, in an unprecedented move, SFSU asked the District Attorney's Office to pursue hate crime charges against the three students.

"For there to be a hate crime, there has to be a specific threat of physical violence against a specific person and the apparent ability to carry out the threat," explains Kim Malcheski, an attorney for one of the pro-Palestine students who faces charges. According to Malcheski, the hate crimes law is used to prosecute racist groups engaging in violence, not to indict political opponents articulating their views – regardless of how heated or hateful the exchange might get. He fears the severity of SFSU's sanctions threatens to roll back the clock on free speech on college campuses.

If SFSU gets away with it, he'll be right.

"Most students will be afraid to go to a spirited protest on any issue if they think they'll be suspended or expelled from school, or prosecuted for a so-called hate crime," he says.

The e-mail heard round the world

SFSU insists it's following school policy in forwarding the students' cases to the D.A. and in pursuing disciplinary measures. But the university admits it came under intense pressure following an e-mail sent by Professor Laurie Zoloth, director of the university's Jewish Studies program and faculty advisor for Hillel, to colleagues describing the post-rally scene as "a riot."

"An angry, out of control mob, literally chanting for our deaths, surrounded us," Zoloth, who describes herself as a progressive and a longtime supporter of peace in Israel, wrote in her e-mail. "I am saddened to see SFSU return to its notoriety as a place that teaches anti-Semitism, hatred for America, and hatred, above all else, for the Jewish State of Israel."

Leila Qutami, a member of GUPS who was also present that day, saw things differently. "From our perspective," she says, "the people being taunted were the pro-Palestinian students." GUPS organizers maintain pro-Israelis were slinging racist comments at the counterdemonstrators during the rally. The pro-Palestinians who entered the plaza at the end did so only after being let out from behind the barricades, they say, and were merely demanding that an Israeli flag hung on the student union building be taken down. According to their account, no one was trapped. The police had already opened up a line between the two groups through which people could freely leave the scene.

But Zoloth's e-mail made its way around the country and beyond and elicited more than 2,000 e-mails to the university from the pro-Israel community.

"It was a very heated, extreme, and in places inaccurate communication that elicited a great deal of fear and concern," SFSU public affairs director Ligeia Polidora says. "I'm not trying to discredit her experience or the fact that many people here that day experienced fear and intimidation, but a riot did not take place on campus."

Nonetheless, four days after Zoloth sent her e-mail, SFSU president Robert Corrigan and other administrators met with Jewish community leaders, faculty, parents, and students to address their concerns. Corrigan issued a statement that very day singling out "a small but terribly destructive number of pro-Palestinian demonstrators" for "abandon[ing] themselves to intimidating behavior and statements too hate-filled to repeat."

On May 23 university police forwarded the three students' cases to the D.A.'s office for investigation of one count of vandalism and five counts of disturbing the peace. All charges include hate crime enhancements.

The D.A.'s Office doesn't seem to think there's much evidence to warrant prosecution and has forwarded the case to the city's Human Rights Commission, which, among other things, helps mediate disputes involving allegations of discrimination.

"The commission is working with all parties to ask President Corrigan not to pursue charges," says Reg Smith, a spokesperson for the D.A.'s Office.

"Whether or not what was said was appropriate or inappropriate, it falls under free speech," says Dennis Dubinsky, SFSU senior and chair of the Israel Coalition, who helped organize the rally. While he's concerned about the loaded environment on campus, Dubinsky says he thinks school officials should "focus on the rules that were broken." Both parties, for example, used bullhorns, violating campus rules.

Kangaroo court

Even if the D.A.'s Office drops all criminal charges, the students still face excessive sanctions, and the process by which they're being judged is far from just.

Lawyers for each of the three students complain that the university has refused to inform their clients of the specific charges against them, won't allow them access to evidence, and insists on conducting the disciplinary hearings behind closed doors – without attorneys. SFSU offered at least two of the students a yearlong suspension – an offer both refused. Instead the students are demanding formal hearings with their legal representatives present.

The pro-Palestine students also object to Corrigan as adjudicator.

"President Corrigan has made it very clear that he's strongly oriented towards pro-Israeli groups and the pro-Israeli position," says Mark Vermuelen, a lawyer for one of the pro-Palestine students. "Several statements he's issued have condemned the pro-Palestinians almost exclusively."

"This is not a court of law," SFSU's Polidora retorts. "The university has never allowed attorneys at student disciplinary hearings since the executive order [granting the university president decision-making authority over disciplinary matters] was passed in 1994."

Lawyers for the pro-Palestine students have filed a complaint with the Department of Education charging SFSU with unfair disciplinary procedures. Attorneys for each of the students are threatening to sue the university should it refuse to resolve their cases through dialogue or allow their clients due process. GUPS, the Muslim Students Association, and the San Francisco chapter of the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee have also submitted a formal complaint to the Department of Education charging SFSU with discrimination against Arab Americans and their allies.

In the meantime the university is reviewing its policies governing political activity on campus and has issued a plan to address intergroup tensions. The plan includes academic programs next semester on civil discourse and a three-day retreat for student leaders. GUPS has been placed on probation and will not be allowed to receive funding or operate its Web site for a year. Hillel has received a letter of warning. Both groups are being required to participate in mediation – but one arbitrated, once again, by the university rather than a neutral third party.

Quelling dissent

With Israel's intensified offensive in the occupied territories and the consequent second intifada, more students at universities nationwide have been drawing correlations between struggles against colonialism and the Palestinian struggle for self-determination.

It's true that, in some instances, the line between criticisms of Israeli policies and criticisms of Judaism and the Jewish people have blurred. The fact that Zoloth's e-mail made its way around the world and sparked such a dramatic response, including coverage in the Washington Post and half a dozen articles in the Jerusalem Post, attests to the enduring sensitivity to any criticisms of Israel that might cross that line.

It's also true that some members of the pro-Israel community have been quick to cry racism when the issue at hand has been Israel's policies – not the Jewish people. And it's true that racism against Arabs and Muslims in this country is at an all-time high – including on university campuses.

While no group should be hindered from holding a rally or a counterdemonstration, it's normal for disputes to get impassioned – especially on college campuses, and especially on such a politically charged issue as the conflict in Israel and the occupied territories. The problem, free-speech experts warn, comes when a university administration bows to outside political pressure and reacts with a markedly heavy hand. Corrigan's manipulation of the criminal justice system and the student disciplinary process to quell dissent at SFSU, they add, threatens not only the future of three students but also that of the free and open exchange of ideas on college campuses.

"The San Francisco State University situation raises concerns," says Alan Schlosser, legal director of the ACLU's northern California chapter. "The university has an interest in promoting civil, non-hateful discourse between two groups," Schlosser continues. "But verbal aggression is protected speech, and people shouldn't be prosecuted for it. If the message is you can't do that, then there's a civil liberties problem."

E-mail Camille T. Taiara at camille@sfbg.com.