Campus leaders respond to dismissal of federal complaint

As part of Apartheid Week, Students for Justice in Palestine staged a mock checkpoint.
Tony Zhou/File
As part of Apartheid Week, Students for Justice in Palestine staged a mock checkpoint.

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On Tuesday, the federal government dismissed a complaint that UC Berkeley administrators did not do enough to curb “an environment hostile to Jewish students” as a result of student demonstrations against Israeli policies.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights addressed the complaint after lawyers from a previous and unsuccessful lawsuit decided to continue pursuing their case through alternative channels in July of 2012. The original suit alleged that the university had failed to intervene when demonstrations by the campus organization Students for Justice in Palestine took what the plaintiffs called an anti-Semitic turn.

The contentious demonstrations occurred on Sproul Plaza in 2010 during Israeli Apartheid Week, when SJP students sought to raise awareness about Israel’s policies toward Palestinians. Jessica Felber and Brian Maissy, UC Berkeley alumni who were plaintiffs in the original lawsuit, alleged that the demonstration’s mock checkpoints, along with verbal and physical harassment of Jewish students, violated Title IV of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

After Felber and Maissey settled with the university, Joel Siegal, a lawyer who argued the plaintiffs’ case, submitted a formal complaint to the Office for Civil Rights making the same allegations.

The office dismissed the complaint after conducting an investigation, stating that “the events did not constitute actionable harassment.”

According to a statement from the Office for Civil Rights, “national origin harassment is unwelcome conduct based on national origin … but in order to establish an hostile environment, conduct must be sufficiently serious such that it limits or denies the student’s ability to participate in, or benefit from, the educational program.”

After looking into matters at UC Berkeley, the office said that “in the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience.”

According to Jewish Student Union member Rafi Lurie, UC Berkeley as an institution is not anti-Semitic, but protests on campus can make Jewish students uncomfortable.

“I think that free speech is one of the most important things we have a right to, but there can be a difference between what a protest is supposed to be about and what is actually said,” Lurie said. “Maybe it’s not everyone, but there have been things said in a demonstration setting that are anti-Semitic.”

According to UC Berkeley spokesperson Dan Mogulof, the campus agreed to consider clarifying its demonstration policies in the settlement of the original legal case but would not curtail student speech.

“As made clear by the Office for Civil Rights and a federal judge, the university has no right or ability to trample on the constitutional rights of students,” Mogulof said.

SJP member Taliah Mirmalek emphasized that student groups of opposite political views are able to have intellectual discussions, regardless of opinion or ethnicity.

“As a UC spokesperson said, criticism of Israel is not necessarily anti-Semitic,” Mirmalek said. “I think that’s really a crucial point.”

Mogulof noted that the campus has multiple preventive programs in place to moderate confrontations between students, such as a team of students and administrators that monitors potential conflicts and an anonymous online incident-reporting system.

“We remain focused on making this university a supportive environment for students, no matter their background, ideology or religion,” Mogulof said.

The Office for Civil Rights also resolved Title IV complaints claiming that Jewish students had been subjected to harassment on the basis of national origin at UC Santa Cruz and UC Irvine.

According to the Los Angeles Times, Siegal, the lawyer, is considering an appeal of the dismissal.

Christine Tyler covers academics and administration. Contact her at [email protected].