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VICTORY: Columbia University Law School Student Senate grants recognition to Law Students Against Antisemitism

We reminded the student senate last week that it cannot condition official recognition on a group’s viewpoint.
Columbia University in New York

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On Jan. 23, the Columbia Law School Student Senate denied official recognition to a student group called Law Students Against Antisemitism after some student senators objected to the group’s definition of anti-Semitism. After FIRE raised viewpoint discrimination concerns in a letter last week, the student senate reports LSAA has now been granted recognition. 

“Law Students Against Antisemitism was approved as a student organization yesterday,” CLS Student Senate President Justin Onwenu wrote FIRE in an email this morning.

Students and student groups hoping to organize under the banner of any set of beliefs should expect to move forward without facing institutional obstacles, regardless of whether everyone approves of their ideas.

“Columbia Law students remain firmly committed to combatting antisemitism and all forms of hate while protecting the free exchange of ideas on our campus,” Onwenu noted.

In its own words, Law Students Against Antisemitism aims to “raise awareness and educate about both historical and contemporary antisemitism.” 

Last month, members of the group approached the law school’s student senate to request official recognition, a status that would grant the group the ability to apply for funding and reserve event space on campus, among other privileges. LSAA planned to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s "working definition of antisemitism" to define the term at the core of its advocacy — and that’s where they hit a roadblock.

According to the Columbia Spectator’s reporting, some student senators objected to LSAA’s use of IHRA’s definition, claiming it could be used to stifle speech. And a group of students urged the student senate to “decline to charter” the group, saying the IHRA definition “conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism.” Confronted with these concerns, approximately 33 student senators voted to reject LSAA’s request for recognition. 

The problem isn’t that students disapproved of a particular definition of anti-Semitism. In fact, FIRE has objected to the use of IHRA’s definition in government policy on the grounds that it could chill constitutionally protected speech. But the right to express this perspective does not sanction obstructing the rights of others to express different views. 

Though Columbia is a private school not legally bound by the First Amendment, it promises “all members” of its community the opportunity to engage in “cherished traditions of free expression and open debate.” Accordingly, students and student groups hoping to organize under the banner of any set of beliefs should expect to move forward without facing institutional obstacles, regardless of whether everyone approves of their ideas.

On Feb. 2, we wrote Onwenu, explaining that according to Columbia’s own stated commitments, it cannot deny recognition to LSAA on the basis of the group’s viewpoint:

[T]he apparent viewpoint-based rejection of LSAA contradicts Columbia’s clear institutional commitments to “provide a place for ideas to be tested, for values to be questioned, and for minds to be changed with as few constraints as possible.” To the extent the Senate, acting as the university’s proxy in this matter, has violated the university’s free expression policies, it must immediately correct course.

We noted Columbia’s policies outline only two instances in which speech may be restricted: when it “runs afoul of reasonable time, place and manner regulations” or when it “constitutes serious misconduct like true threats or harassment.” Given that these narrowly tailored exceptions mirror those of the First Amendment, we argued that “students reading these regulations will reasonably look to First Amendment jurisprudence to understand the scope and nature of their free speech rights.”

FIRE was pleased to hear today that LSAA was officially recognized over the weekend.

Amid ongoing campus tension related to the Israel-Hamas war and the broader Israeli-Palestinian conflict, student body leaders can either rise to the occasion by creating space for debate and disagreement, or try to shut it down. We’re hopeful this quick fix at Columbia means CLS students will feel empowered to engage in difficult discussions. 

FIRE defends the rights of students and faculty members — no matter their views — at public and private universities and colleges in the United States. If you are a student or a faculty member facing investigation or punishment for your speech, submit your case to FIRE today. If you’re a faculty member at a public college or university, call the Faculty Legal Defense Fund 24-hour hotline at 254-500-FLDF (3533). If you’re a college journalist facing censorship or a media law question, call the Student Press Freedom Initiative 24-hour hotline at 717-734-SPFI (7734).

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