Students sue UCLA over 'Jew Exclusion Zone' as debates over intolerance grip campuses

"If masked agitators had excluded any other marginalized group at UCLA, Governor Newsom rightly would have sent in the National Guard immediately," law firm says. UCLA disputes that moving event online is caving to pro-Palestine protesters.

Published: June 9, 2024 10:49pm

Pro-Palestine activists are calling the shots at UCLA, violating the constitutional rights of Jewish students as well as a speaker and his audience, according to a new lawsuit and legal threat letter by different public interest law firms.

Religious liberty firm Becket is representing three Jewish students who were actively blocked from walking through campus by UCLA-hired security to protect an illegal encampment, violating their First and Fourteenth amendment rights, civil rights as Jews and even an anti-mask law intended to prevent Ku Klux Klan harassment, their suit says.

"If masked agitators had excluded any other marginalized group at UCLA, [California] Governor [Gavin] Newsom rightly would have sent in the National Guard immediately," but instead UCLA "allowed its Jewish students to be segregated from the heart of their own campus," says Becket CEO and President Mark Rienzi.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression twice told the University of California Los Angeles that it thought the school had shirked its constitutional obligations by facilitating a heckler's veto on an event featuring former Israeli foreign minister Tzipi Livni because Students for Justice in Palestine promised a protest to convey that "war criminals are NOT welcome on our campus!"

UCLA said that forcing the in-person event to move to Zoom is not a heckler's veto.

"If UCLA had its way, only the least controversial messages could enjoy in-person audiences on campus," FIRE said Thursday.

The university didn't respond to Just the News requests for its response to the lawsuit and FIRE's second warning letter.

The pro-Palestine encampments that blanketed campuses nationwide months after Israel's response to Hamas terrorism Oct. 7 – conveniently, as temperatures rose – hit UCLA especially hard. 

Violence broke out between different sides in April after the school declared the pro-Palestine encampment unlawful, with campus police not intervening for several hours. UCLA canceled classes, followed by police dismantling the encampment and Los Angeles County lawmakers voting to pay for legal defense for some of the 200 arrested protesters

UCLA reassigned its police chief a day before Chancellor Gene Block was to face a congressional hearing on how schools handled anti-Israel campus protests. Block admitted before lawmakers he was aware that "Palestinian activists were seen on campus holding knives," Becket's image-filled suit says.

It names as defendants UCLA and administrators including Block, saying they effectively created a weeklong "Jew Exclusion Zone" by enforcing the boundaries of the encampment, leaving alone the "barricades in the center of campus" set up by anti-Israel protesters.

They allegedly required Yitzchok Frankel, Joshua Ghayoum and Eden Shemulian, among other Jewish students and faculty, to renounce their belief that "Israel has the right to exist and maintain a Jewish state in the Jewish ancestral homeland" to pass through.

"Activists issued wristbands or other forms of identification to those who passed this Orwellian inquisition," and "in a remarkable display of cowardice, appeasement, and illegality, the administration did nothing to stop it" despite Block publicly acknowledging what was happening, the complaint says.

Administrators ordered "UCLA campus police to stand down and step aside" then hired security guards who told Jewish students "they would first need to obtain the permission of the encampment members" to pass through. One of them even "shooed away" Shemuelian and called her "the problem" for simply trying to "peacefully observe the encampment," the suit says.

This represents official actions by the public university to violate "the basic guarantee of equal access to educational facilities" and "numerous other statutory guarantees of equality and fair treatment," the plaintiffs say.

Weeks before the encampment, someone placed a statue on campus depicting "a several-foot-tall pig holding a bag of money and a birdcage with a keffiyeh, alongside a bucket painted with a star of David," capping off months of unaddressed antisemitic incidents. The suit mentions UCLA's alleged heckler's veto against the Livni event as an example.

FIRE's first warning letter, on April 10, went to Dov Waxman, director of the Nazarian Center for Israel Studies, who made the call to move the event online. 

The decision whet SJP's appetite, with the campus chapter promising "[w]e will not rest until the UC cuts all ties with the Zionist state" and promising that the sponsoring political science department "will not get away with" moving the event online, FIRE said.

If universities claimed the authority to move events online without "credible threats of violence," they would have "broad authority to limit speech under dubious security rationales," the letter said.

UCLA responded April 26 that it "successfully met" its goals to ensure the event "proceed[ed] without disruption and to reach its intended audience" while "minimiz[ing] disruption to University operations."

The letter from interim Principal Campus Counsel Steven Drown said it learned SJP planned to "disrupt the lecture," not just protest outside. A day before the lecture, SJP at UC Berkeley caused a "near riot, with broken windows" and police escorting "the speaker and attendees out of the building," he said.

Waxman took "exemplary actions" to protect the First Amendment rights of Livni, the Nazarian Center and the audience, resulting in an even larger online audience, and UCLA didn't have to "prevent protest activities" by SJP, Drown said.

None of FIRE's cited cases has been decided since "the widespread use" of online presentations, he emphasized.

FIRE responded June 3 that Drown doesn't seem to appreciate that "the decision was made not only in haste, but without proper considerations" of UCLA's constitutional obligations or the incentives it created "for others to pursue similarly disruptive behavior."

"Officials ratify a heckler's veto whenever they burden or restrict a planned expressive event to prevent threatened disruption by criticals," whether moving it online, "assessing large security fees" based on viewpoint or preventing the distribution of literature  "because some may react violently" to the distributor, FIRE said.

It's up to event hosts to "consider these respective pros and cons" of online versus in-person events "as they make venue and format decisions – and UCLA consequently may not constitutionally allow protesters to dictate those choices for the hosts," the letter said.

Zoom’s availability is not an escape hatch for UCLA to sidestep its constitutional obligation to provide adequate security when hosts opt for in-person events, FIRE said. 

Rather, in line with controlling precedent of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, UCLA must "provide security sufficient to prevent or swiftly halt any disruptions from the planned protest so the in-person lecture could proceed as planned."

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