Six Jewish students and visitors sued San Francisco State University in federal court Monday, alleging the university and its administrators “have knowingly fostered” an anti-Semitic environment and discrimination against Jewish students.
The civil rights lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco, centers on an event in which the campus branch of Hillel, a nationwide Jewish student group, invited Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat to speak on April 6, 2016.
The speech was attended by 30 to 40 students and Jewish people from outside the campus and by about 20 student protestors, according to an investigation commissioned by the university.
The lawsuit claims the pro-Palestinian protestors “commandeered the event and shut it down” by using a portable amplifier to drown out Barkat’s speech with allegedly menacing chants such as “Intifada, Intifada” and “We don’t want you on our campus.”
It claims that although school policy prohibits interfering with an event and using an unauthorized amplifier, administrators allegedly told campus police to “stand down” and the police did not stop the disruption.
The lawsuit alleges the university and administrators violated the students’ and visitors’ constitutional First Amendment right to free speech and assembly and 14th Amendment right to equal treatment.
The students also allege Hillel was unfairly excluded from a campus “Know Your Rights” fair aimed at members of vulnerable populations on Feb. 18.
The suit contends that the university has a long history of anti-Semitism, dating back to the late 1960s, and that some students are afraid to wear yarmulkes or a Star of David.
It asks for a court order prohibiting the alleged discrimination and for compensatory and punitive financial awards. The defendants are the university, President Leslie Wong, several administrators and the statewide California State University Board of Trustees.
University General Counsel Daniel Ojeda said in a statement, “The university disagrees with the allegations in the complaint, but we have not had a sufficient opportunity to review or respond to it.
“We have been working closely with the Jewish community, among other interest groups, to address concerns and improve the campus environment for all students. Those efforts have been very productive and will continue notwithstanding this lawsuit,” Ojeda said.
The university-commissioned investigation by an outside law firm concluded last year that the chanting and amplified sound violated school policy and disrupted the event and that key planning did not occur because the event was planned on less than two weeks’ notice.
But it said, “there were no direct threats of imminent violence that would have justified police intervention, specifically arrest and removal from the area.”
The plaintiffs are represented by lawyers from the Lawfare Project, a nonprofit pro-Israel organization based in New York.