Jury awards damages to rabbi hit during university protest

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A jury has found that Howard University and former campus police officer Robert Cyrus engaged in unlawful battery against Rabbi Avi Weiss on April 19, 1994, and must pay $5,000 in compensatory damages to Weiss.

However, the jury in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia ruled in Howard's favor on the other charges in the case, which accused the university of violating Weiss' civil and constitutional rights and the District of Columbia Human Rights Code.

Weiss considers the ruling a big win. "I'm ecstatic," says the Orthodox rabbi from New York. "This is a very significant victory…A university was found guilty of unlawful battery."

Weiss' lawyer, Steven Lieberman, concurred. The importance of the case was "principle, not money," he says. "We would have considered one dollar a victory."

The case stems from a protest Weiss and three colleagues held in objection to Nation of Islam representative Khalid Abdul Muhammad's multiple appearances on Howard's campus. Weiss said that during the protest he was surrounded by a crowd of people who screamed epithets such as "the only good Zionist is a dead Zionist," and that one person spat on him.

After about 15 minutes, Howard's campus police intervened, ordering Weiss and his fellow protesters to leave. When Weiss declined, Cyrus ripped the signs Weiss was holding from his hands and, in the process, "struck [Weiss] with his elbow and his shoulder" and walked away. Weiss suffered no physical injury.

The jury ruled that the conduct of Cyrus and Howard was "unreasonable and unjustified," says Lieberman, and he hopes that Howard has learned a lesson. "When people come to [a university] to protest bigotry and racism, the university has an obligation to protect those protesters against violence and threats."