New York State judge Nancy M. Bannon recently ordered Fordham University to recognize a chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—a student organization that has become central in the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement—following a decision by the dean of students, Keith Eldredge, to reject SJP’s application for recognition in the 2016–2017 academic year. The American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) applauds the court’s decision to uphold the free exchange of ideas.
Mr. Eldredge declined SJP’s application because he felt that activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would lead to “polarization rather than dialogue.” This idea—that college students are unable to discuss certain topics—damages the educational mission of the university. If the academy were to avoid polarizing topics, important research would stop, and the advancement of knowledge would stall. If the dean of students were to protect students from upsetting or controversial issues, the university would be in danger of becoming an extended safe space. As long as Students for Justice in Palestine is scrupulous in obeying campus regulations and respects the rights of pro-Israel organizations, it has a right to express its views and be heard.
That being said, university leadership must be vigilant not to capitulate to demands by Students for Justice in Palestine that violate academic freedom. ACTA warned in its 2017 essay “Campus Free Speech, Academic Freedom, and the Problem of the BDS Movement” that the BDS movement has often posed threats to academic freedom. For example, petitions to ban students from studying abroad in Israel, which infringe upon the academic freedom of students who wish to study there as well as the religious liberty of Jewish students, have become too commonplace on campuses across the nation.
Dr. Michael Poliakoff, President of ACTA, stated, “Fordham University must walk a fine line: It must acknowledge Students for Justice in Palestine and encourage a free and open debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, while ensuring that SJP does not obstruct the rights of Jewish or pro-Israel students, or attempt to silence their voices.”
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