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Campus speech codes used against students who dismiss Hamas terrorism as Israel's fault

New York University, which settled federal anti-Semitism civil rights investigation, says law student body president created "intimidating and unwelcoming environment." Free speech group warns this creates chilling effects.

Published: October 19, 2023 11:00pm

Updated: October 20, 2023 9:39am

A mile and a half from the worst terrorist attack on U.S. soil, a free speech battle is raging over the worst terrorist attack on Israeli soil.

New York University is under fire from critics of Israel and civil libertarians for its response to pro-Palestine student activism in the wake of the Oct. 7 Hamas slaughter and kidnapping of Israeli civilians and Israel's resulting Gaza offensive.

The school is investigating the now-suspended president of its law school's student government, Ryna Workman, for using the Student Bar Association newsletter to declare "Israel bears full responsibility" for the attack that left at least 1,400 Israelis dead and describe terrorism as "resistance."

On possibly different grounds, the private university told Fox News on Wednesday it's investigating students who were recorded tearing down campus posters of Israeli hostages.

One has voluntarily come forward, a former Anti-Defamation League intern. Yazmeen Deyhimi apologized for what she called her "misplaced anger" before scrubbing her Instagram account, and her spokesperson released a statement saying she was upset non-Hamas Palestinian victims of Israel weren't included in the posters. 

Pro-Palestine groups including Dissenters and the NYU National Lawyers Guild identified another as freshman "Hafiza" in a petition demanding NYU protect her from "racist agitators" and claiming the hostage posters "promoted violence against Palestinians." She has been identified in news reports as Hafiza Khalique, an "anti-militarist organizing fellow" at Dissenters.

At other schools, professors flogged on social media have said their words and actions were misinterpreted. 

University of Michigan professor Erik Gordon – recorded taking down hostage posters from campus walls in a since-removed X posttold law professor Jonathan Turley he was moving them to an authorized wall in the same building, he's Jewish and "I abhor antisemitism."

Washington University in St. Louis disputed professor Seth Crosby's claim that it fired him for an X post describing the Gaza offensive as a "much needed cleansing," by which he meant of Hamas, but "not an ethnic one" and that "Israel is not targeting humans." 

The private university told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch it was "following up" with Crosby, who has since deleted his X account, "according to our policies and processes."

NYU stands out among schools nationwide, however, for its recent fraught history on Israel and Palestine issues.

Ex-President Andrew Hamilton, who resigned in June, applauded the school's 2019 graduation speaker who had just promoted the anti-Israel boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and denounced the "apartheid state government in Israel." Hamilton later claimed the BDS-related remarks weren't included in the version approved by NYU.

NYU's Students for Justice in Palestine chapter received the President's Service Award the same year, though Hamilton disclaimed any role in choosing the winner.

A federal civil rights complaint against NYU in 2019 said it tolerates "anti-semitic vandalism, verbal attacks and outright violence" by SJP against Jewish students. NYU reached a "voluntary agreement" with the Department of Education in 2020 that obligates it to "address and ameliorate … anti-Semitism that involves student clubs." 

The agreement came up last year when NYU law student groups including SJP signed a memo defending Palestinian violence against Israelis, prompting an investigation under unspecified "policies." But the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) told NYU the speech was protected and hence not covered by the agreement.

NYU Law notified Workman of the investigation in an letter dated Oct. 12, a day after the SBA board told its president it had scheduled a week of removal proceedings through Oct. 24, and two days after law firm Winston & Strawn publicly revoked Workman's job offer based on the missive.

Davis Polk also rescinded offers to three unidentified law students at Harvard and Columbia that the firm said were tied to unspecified statements.

Dean Troy McKenzie told Workman, who identifies as nonbinary and went by Lauryn at the University of South Carolina, that the newsletter message "has created an intimidating and unwelcoming environment for the members of our community" and "may constitute an abuse of your student leadership role."

Workman shared the correspondence in a Google Drive "press packet" that includes many other statements and supporting materials. The student has also been on a tear posting and sharing pro-Gaza content on X.

FIRE issued a broadside against NYU on Monday, before its investigation letter was known, based on the university's cryptic comments to The New York Times Oct. 11 alluding to Workman and speaking "generally" of its process for investigating "complaints of bias and/or discriminatory behavior."

NYU's own policies frown on investigations of students for "pure political expressions," FIRE warned McKenzie in a public letter that stopped short of threatening litigation, though it implied NYU was vulnerable to a breach-of-contract claim.

Administrators can "conduct a cursory, internal review" and "promptly close the case without ever notifying the accused student" if it determines the complaint targets "solely protected expression," FIRE said. It has found "no suggestion in any of the public reporting that Workman engaged in any misconduct whatsoever."

By referring to the student's speech as "potential misconduct," the university "sends a chilling message not only to Workman, but to all students and faculty that they may face disciplinary action for engaging in core political expression," according to the warning letter. 

This is especially dangerous for would-be lawyers, "who frequently must disclose any disciplinary action when they apply to legal jobs or the bar," FIRE said. "These students face additional incentives to self-censor rather than risk any kind of misconduct investigation that could forestall their legal careers."

NYU has not answered Just the News queries from Monday, when FIRE first sounded the alarm, and again Thursday with its communications made public. It has instead posted a "roundup of key statements" on its response to the Israel-Hamas conflict, including differentiating its views from those of students.

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