SAN FRANCISCO – July 13 – A settlement agreement terminating a federal lawsuit against UC Berkeley is a victory for free speech, say civil rights advocates and student groups Students for Justice in Palestine (Cal SJP), the Muslim Student Association (Cal MSA), the Asian Law Caucus (ALC), the National Lawyers Guild San Francisco Bay Area Chapter (NLGSF), American Muslims for Palestine (AMP) and the Council on American-Islamic Relations San Francisco Bay Area (CAIR-SFBA).
“The lawsuit, Felber v. Regents, was based on false and inflammatory allegations that the plaintiffs could not substantiate in court,” said Margaret Zho a student representative of Cal SJP. “It was legal bullying as part of a larger coordinated attempt to silence speech critical of Israel.”
Liz Jackson of NLGSF added, “The facts alleged in the lawsuit were delusional and laced with anti-Arab and Muslim bigotry. The settlement agreement proves that the lawsuit was meritless. The only outcome is a promise that the University will hold a public meeting to discuss clarification of some policies about the use of toy weapons and the flow of foot traffic in symbolic displays on campus. But the University is not obligated to change any of its speech policies.”
Students have long held symbolic demonstrations criticizing the Israeli occupation at U.C. Berkeley, including mock checkpoints which aim to bring awareness to how Palestinian civilians are treated at Israeli military checkpoints in the occupied Palestinian Territories. These checkpoints are staffed by students of all backgrounds, including Jewish students, who engage in the simulation with fellow actors in full accordance with campus protest regulations. In 2011, two students affiliated with the pro-Israel student group Tikvah filed and twice amended a lawsuit claiming that their civil rights were infringed by the University’s toleration of speech singling out Israel for harsh criticism.
“The allegations in the Felber lawsuit and the strategy behind bringing the suit were carefully calibrated to defame and harass Arab and Muslim student groups at Cal,” said Mohamed Haimoud, president of Cal MSA.
An earlier version of the lawsuit was dismissed by the Court in December 2011. In dismissing the case, the Court held that plaintiffs had failed to allege any viable cause of action and that U.C. Berkeley, the birthplace of the free speech movement, might violate the First Amendment if it attempted to curb criticism of Israel. After the dismissal, the lawsuit was amended, and plaintiffs and the University entered into settlement negotiations resulting in the recently announced settlement agreement.
“The terms of the settlement agreement support our position that the lawsuit was baseless. The agreement reflects a rejection of the two core fallacies in the lawsuit: first, that the allegations themselves were false, and second, that criticism of the humanitarian crisis created by the state of Israel is not anti-Semitism,” stated George Khadifa, an incoming ASUC student senator and a student representative of Cal SJP.
Having failed in court, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, the plaintiffs have now filed complaints with the Department of Justice (DOJ) and Department of Education (DOE) asserting the same false allegations. This is a continued attempt to squelch Cal SJP and Cal MSA speech rights, as part of a larger coordinated assault on free speech. Efforts are also underway to pressure the UC Regents to issue policies which unlawfully restrict student speech.
“Cal SJP, Cal MSA and our civil rights partners will work to ensure that these complaints are dismissed and the legacy of U.C. Berkeley as the birthplace of free speech is protected,” stated ASUC Senator Sadia Saifuddin.