(New York, NY)—This week, Fordham University in New York City lost a lawsuit brought by five current and former students, who had been denied permission to form a Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) club at the university in 2016 on First Amendment grounds. Fordham’s student government initially approved the student organization, but the dean of students vetoed the decision, claiming that the group would cause “polarization,” and that their support for a boycott of Israel “presents a barrier to open dialogue.”

“Student groups should not be barred because some university administrators find their aims objectionable,” said Jonathan Friedman, project director for campus free speech at PEN America. “Whether concerning conservative students at the University of Florida or advocates for Palestinian rights at Fordham, rules pertaining to the formation of student groups should be consistent and content-neutral. While there may be pressures to prohibit some groups or constrain students’ choices, universities will be most effective at encouraging open dialogue and mutual understanding if they allow students to associate freely on a wide range of political and social issues, no matter how controversial.”

Fordham argued in court that as a private university, they were not beholden to the First Amendment. But on Tuesday, Judge Nancy Bannon found that the university’s denial of the club was “arbitrary and capricious” and that Fordham violated its own rules in vetoing the application. The university was ordered to recognize the club, although Fordham has not yet said if or when it will do so. 

PEN America has previously commented on this case in 2017, and, more recently, examined the importance of free expression and open inquiry on college campuses in our 2019 report Chasm in the Classroom: Campus Free Speech in a Divided America

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