a headshot image of wong is superimposed over an entrance to campus
San Francisco State University campus; S.F. State President Les Wong

Lawsuit: Jews at SFSU face hostile environment

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Students and Jewish community members this week filed a federal lawsuit accusing San Francisco State University of contributing to a campus climate that is hostile to Jewish students and those who express pro-Israel views.

The lawsuit, which contains six causes of action, names as defendants 13 university officials — including SFSU President Leslie Wong — as well as the university itself and the California State University’s board of trustees.

According to the lawsuit, which was filed June 19, the defendants’ behavior violated the plaintiffs’ rights to free speech and equal protection, as well as a provision of the Civil Rights Act that outlaws race-based discrimination under any federal program, or one that receives federal funding.

“SFSU and its administrators have knowingly fostered this discrimination and hostile environment, which has been marked by violent threats to the safety of Jewish students on campus,” the lawsuit reads.

SFSU has been under fire for months from the Jewish community on and off campus for its handling of a string of troubling incidents, including last year’s shouting down of the visiting mayor of Jerusalem, threatening social media posts directed at Jews and Israelis and the curious exclusion of Hillel from a university information fair on human rights in February.

Two of the fair’s eight sponsors were the General Union of Palestine Students and the Muslim Student Association.

As a result, leaders in the Jewish community have said news of the lawsuit, which claims that SFSU has “repeatedly denied” Hillel and other Jewish student groups equal access to campus events, was not a shock.

“In the face of University inaction, it was not surprising to learn that alienated Jewish students resolved to litigate to ensure a safer climate on campus,” Abby Porth, executive director of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council, which is not involved in the litigation, wrote in an emailed statement. “The JCRC has been in conversation with the SFSU administration and CSU system about the pervasive nature of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric and activity on campus, and the chilling effect this has on Jewish students’ free speech and personal safety.”

A June 20 SFSU press statement read in part, “The University strongly disagrees with the allegations in the complaint filed yesterday. Instances of intolerance or anti-Semitism are neither promoted nor tolerated at SF State by the president or by administrators. San Francisco State University is deeply committed to the elimination of anti-Semitism in our community and to fostering a safe and welcoming campus for our Jewish students. When such instances are brought to the attention of administrators, they are investigated impartially and action is taken in accordance with resulting findings. Lawsuits seeking to force SF State to both protect free speech and assure diversity and inclusion are unnecessary and redundant. SF State remains committed to furthering free speech and defeating discrimination, including anti-Semitism. Rather than litigation, we welcome the plaintiffs, and any other organizations similarly committed to these ideals, to join us in pursuing that objective.”

Professor Fred Astren, chair of the Department of Jewish Studies at SFSU, believes that while it potentially widens already existing fault lines, legal action may re-energize an issue he sees as stalled. “The lawsuit is regrettable, but maybe it will move [the university] forward,” he said. “I wasn’t surprised, because the handling of these matters has left them vulnerable to something.”

The students and community members suing SFSU came together shortly after Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat’s controversial campus talk in April 2016. Protesters affiliated with the General Union of Palestine Students used bullhorns to drown out the mayor’s speech, chanted “intifada!” and yelled “get the fuck off our campus” at the crowd assembled to hear Barkat, as described in the lawsuit.

The mayor huddled in a corner with a group of students wishing to hear him speak, and then was hounded by screaming protesters as he walked to his car.

“SFSU has not merely adopted and embraced an anti-Jewish position — it has systematically supported these departments and this student group as they have doggedly organized their efforts to target, threaten, and intimidate Jewish students on campus and deprive them of their civil rights and their ability to feel safe and secure as they pursue their education at SFSU,” the lawsuit reads.

Recalling the Barkat incident, plaintiff Aaron Parker told J. that “it felt like an assault.” A former local executive with the Jewish National Fund, Parker attended the 2016 speech. “In my capacity as a Jewish community professional, and specifically an Israel-focused professional, I have witnessed a lot of anti-Israel protests, but I have never seen anything like this, where a public university was complicit … I couldn’t believe it even happened.”

Masha Merkulova, founder of the South Bay-based Zionist teen group Club Z and another plaintiff in the lawsuit, posted a video of the event on Facebook, which was shared with the Bay Area Jewish community, after which several of the plaintiffs began conferring about the incident. “The video went kind of viral, and that’s when we started talking — [we said] this is not right,” she told J. “Then we were figuring out the best ways to approach the issue.”

As discussions among the plaintiffs proceeded, the group brought in the New York-based Lawfare Project, a nonprofit that arranges free legal representation for pro-Israel activists. After about a year of effort to effect change at SFSU, the group filed suit.

“We agreed that litigation was the only step left,” said Amanda Berman, the Lawfare Project’s director of legal affairs. “We spent a lot of time over the year on an investigation, on the school’s responses … We sent public records requests, and we all came to the conclusion that litigation was necessary.”

The Lawfare Project also added a team of attorneys from international law firm Winston & Strawn who have taken on the case pro bono.

Attorneys from Winston & Strawn said that the Civil Rights Act claim in the litigation has not been successfully brought on behalf of Jewish students before.

“We believe we will be the first,” said Seth Weisburst, a San Francisco-based Winston & Strawn attorney. “The several claims under [the rights to free speech and equal protection] are not that uncommon, and we also think we have a very strong case.”

The plaintiffs are seeking both monetary damages as well as a judicial order that would address the systemic problems at the university, according to Weisburst.

“Ultimately,” said Berman, when asked about the results she is aiming for, “it’s up to the clients what systemic change they are hoping to accomplish.”

But to do so may require a substantial and difficult legal battle. “I think the plaintiffs are going to have a very hard time succeeding for a variety of reasons,” said Oakland-based civil rights attorney Dan Siegel, who has filed suit against a number of state universities in California. “But primarily, their burden is going to be that they must prove the university, as an institution, is complicit in illegal activities.”

The full complaint is below:

Complaint (Text)

max cherney
Max A. Cherney

Max A. Cherney is a former J. staff writer.