UC Berkeley alumni Jessica Felber and Brian Maissy dismissed their lawsuit accusing the campus and UC system of failure to mitigate a hostile climate against Jewish students during demonstrations in March 2010, the campus announced Wednesday July 11, 2012.
The suit stems from an incident during which Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and the Muslim Student Association established a mock checkpoint that included fake barbed wire and AK-47 firearms at a 2010 Apartheid Week event. The plaintiffs alleged that Husam Zakharia, campus alumnus and former leader of SJP, rammed Felber — who was a member of Tikvah Students for Israel — with a shopping cart. Felber consequently sought medical treatment and a restraining order against Zakharia.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs accused the university of failing to discipline the accused campus groups, provide adequate security, and implement policies to prevent the hostile environment, ultimately “turn(ing) a blind eye.”
The legal complaint, filed in March 2011, was dismissed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in December 2011, but kept alive through an appeal of that court's ruling. The U.S. District Court judge who dismissed the lawsuit, largely on free-speech grounds, had asked university administrators to take steps to ensure students' rights were protected and to minimize the protests' potential for violence or unsafe conditions.
The settlement absolves the university's administration of any obligation to pay the plaintiffs monetary damages or to reimburse them for their legal costs. “We had no desire for any personal compensation,” Maissy said. “We just wanted the situation to change for students in the future.”
Maissy said the lawsuit was “not entirely successful” because by the time it was concluded, both plaintiffs had graduated and consequently did not have the same power to seek redress from the court.
The demonstrations are staged in a busy area of the campus, Sather Gate, by activists belonging to the Muslim Student Association and Students for Justice in Palestine. The activists man fake checkpoints intended to protest alleged rights violations by Israel in its treatment of Palestinians. The lawsuit focuses on clashes at the checkpoints between the activists and Jewish students who regard the protest as offensive.
The agreement requires the administration to consider two changes in its policies covering campus protests, both intended to deal with Jewish students' complaints stemming from "Apartheid Week" demonstrations at Berkeley.
One policy revision that the university must consider under the settlement would clarify Berkeley's policy on campus protests to say that protesters may not display imitation firearms "unless it would be obvious to a reasonable observer that the imitation weapon is not a real weapon" and the display is approved by the campus police.
The other proposed policy change would make clear to groups staging such protests that they must leave an unobstructed path around Sather Gate for pedestrian traffic.
The settlement appears unlikely to end the university's dispute with advocates for Jewish students at Berkeley, however. Lawyers for the plaintiffs — Joel Siegal and Neal Sher — filed a Title VI complaint to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights and the Department of Justice, urging them to investigate what they describe as "a pervasive hostile environment toward Jews" on the campus. They call the protests "nothing short of racist hate speech" and an effort to portray all Jews as "blood-thirsty barbarians."
It urges federal officials to consider demanding that the university take steps similar to those required as part of an April settlement with the university over alleged racial harassment on its San Diego campus. That settlement, drawn up in response to several incidents deemed offensive to black students, included provisions requiring the university to maintain an Office for the Prevention of Harassment and Discrimination, and to provide mandatory antidiscrimination training to students and staff.
Maissy said he hopes the complaint will lead to an investigation that will cause the university to take more action or lose federal funding.
Sher maintains the Apartheid Week event “brings anti-Semitism to full glory.” “The atmosphere that some of these Jewish kids have been subjected to (is) reminiscent of what went on in Nazi Germany in the 30s,” Sher said. “And the university has the capability to step in and to stop this, but it hasn’t in years.”
The university said the majority of the plaintiff’s allegations was constitutionally protected speech and that the university “had made extensive efforts to maintain an inclusive and respectful campus environment that is safe and welcoming for everyone.”
“The claim that there is a hostile environment for Jewish students at Berkeley is, on its face, entirely unfounded,” stated campus Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard in the release. “The campus takes great pride in its vibrant Hillel chapter, the broad range of other Jewish student groups, our world-class Jewish Studies program, and the recently created Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law at the Berkeley law school.”