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U. of California Settles Lawsuit Alleging Anti-Semitism at Berkeley

U. of California Settles Lawsuit Alleging Anti-Semitism at Berkeley

Peter Schmidt
July 12, 2011

The University of California has settled a lawsuit that accused it of tolerating anti-Semitism on its Berkeley campus, pledging as part of its agreement with the plaintiffs to consider tweaks in its policies governing campus protests to prevent situations that Jewish students have called intimidating.

The settlement appears unlikely to end the university’s dispute with advocates for Jewish students at Berkeley, however. Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the case this week filed complaints with two federal agencies, the Justice Department and the Education Department’s Office for Civil Rights, urging them to investigate what they describe as “a pervasive hostile environment toward Jews” on the campus.

Under the terms of the settlement, announced by the campus’s administration on Wednesday, the two plaintiffs in the case—Brian Maissy, a current Berkeley student, and Jessica Felber, a 2010 Berkeley graduate—agreed to drop their lawsuit, which was dismissed last year by a U.S. District Court court but kept alive through an appeal of that court’s ruling.

The settlement absolves the university’s administration of any obligation to pay the plaintiffs monetary damages or to reimburse them for their legal costs. It does, however, require the administration to consider two minor changes in its policies covering campus protests, both intended to deal with Jewish students’ complaints stemming from “Apartheid Week” demonstrations at Berkeley.

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 portray themselves as Jews, with Stars of David, yarmulkes, and other traditional garb, and they 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.

‘Entirely Unfounded’

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 for pedestrian traffic.

Berkeley’s news release announcing the settlement notes that, under it, everyone on the campus will be allowed to comment on the proposed policy changes, and the university is not obliged “to change any existing policies at the end of the public review.”

Jonathan Poullard, the campus’s dean of students, is quoted in the release as saying administrators there “are pleased with the successful resolution of this litigation” and “the claim that there is a hostile environment for Jewish students at Berkeley is, on its face, entirely unfounded.”

The release notes that the U.S. District Court judge who previously dismissed the lawsuit, largely on free-speech grounds, had credited university administrators with taking steps to ensure students’ rights were protected and to minimize the protests’ potential for violence or unsafe conditions.

The complaint that the plaintiffs’ lawyers have filed with the Justice and Education Departments disputes such assertions, calling 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.


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