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February 2, 2018 10:24 am

San Francisco State University Faces Second Lawsuit Alleging Discrimination Against Jewish Students

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The quad at San Francisco State University. Photo: Michael Ocampo.

Two Jewish students are pursuing a civil rights lawsuit against San Francisco State University for alleged discrimination that left them feeling threatened and alienated from campus life.

“SFSU has a long and documented history of institutionalized anti-Semitism,” charged the complaint, filed Tuesday in the Superior Court of San Francisco on behalf of students Charles Volk and Liam Kern.

The lawsuit, which also targets the Board of Trustees of the California State University (CSU), warned that Jews at SFSU are “often afraid to wear Stars of David or yarmulkes.”

“Jews on campus face racist slurs and epithets,” asserted the plaintiffs, who are represented by attorneys from The Lawfare Project — a nonprofit focused on cases alleging antisemitic discrimination — and the legal firm Winston & Strawn.

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SFSU’s Jewish community is confronted with “blood libels that can be traced directly to the notoriously hateful forgery Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the complaint continued, “displays and events on campus that equate them with Nazis and baby murderers; deprivations of their rights to speak, listen, and assemble; threats, harassment, intimidation, and bullying.”

The lawsuit specifically pointed to a February 2017 incident when the Jewish campus group Hillel, of which Volk and Kern are both members, was “intentionally and surreptitiously” barred from participating in a “Know Your Rights” information fair at SFSU.

While the university has acknowledged that Hillel “was improperly excluded” from the event, which was organized in part by SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies and the General Union of Palestine Students, the lawsuit claimed this decision was “sanctioned by high-ranking university officials.”

“SFSU’s exclusion of this recognized Jewish student group is part of a larger systemic pattern of discrimination against its Jewish students,” the plaintiffs charged.

The lawsuit also dismissed the university’s previous “empty and overly general statements” on antisemitism for failing “to address the very real and immediate concerns of Jewish students on campus regarding their rights and physical safety.”

Among these is a written recognition from SFSU President Leslie Wong on May 30th “that institutionalized anti-Semitism is part of what we at SF State must confront and mitigate.” The president’s letter — which contained a pledge to “lead a university-wide effort to seek solutions to the anti-Semitism on this campus” — followed his meeting with five Jewish students who said they routinely face “lies, intimidation, and one-sided stereotypes” at SFSU.

Earlier that month, local Hillel director Ollie Benn also wrote in J Weekly that SFSU “keeps the organized Jewish campus community at arm’s-length, excludes our students from participating in campus events, allows speakers we invite to be shouted down and refuses to publicly stand against intolerance when it’s directed at the Jewish community.”

Nonetheless, the complaint alleged that “there has been a total lack of any follow up from [Wong] or other University officials.”

Kern, an SFSU junior, said in a statement on Wednesday that the atmosphere on campus has become “beyond difficult or upsetting, it has evolved into something frightening and ugly.”

He expressed hope that the case “inspires other students who have been excluded or silenced to reclaim their own voices, and take action to protect their civil rights.”

The lawsuit is distinct from another filed in federal court in June on behalf of Jewish students and community members — including Volk and Kern — who accused specific SFSU administrators and faculty of violating their civil rights.

That suit, also advanced by The Lawfare Project and Winston & Strawn, did not target SFSU for federal constitutional violations because the university is protected by sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment.

“The state complaint filed this week is filed directly against SFSU and CSU, requesting that the California state court hold the University and the CSU system directly liable,” Amanda Berman, director of legal affairs at The Lawfare Project, told The Algemeiner on Thursday.

In a November hearing on the federal lawsuit, US District Judge William Orrick said he plans to “dismiss the complaint with leave to amend,” and advised plaintiffs to submit “a shorter, plainer statement of the claim,” which originally included accusations of antisemitism at SFSU dating back to the 1960s.

“You must allege specific intent to discriminate,” Orrick instructed.

The decision was welcomed by SFSU, which asserted that “instances of intolerance or anti-Semitism are neither promoted nor tolerated at SF State by the president or by administrators.”

Berman, however, stressed that the federal lawsuit is ongoing, and said the complaint will be “expeditiously” amended and re-filed on the judge’s instruction.

In response to the latest lawsuit, SFSU told The Algemeiner on Friday that it had “not seen a complaint that reportedly was filed in state courts.”

“Should the plaintiffs file a new complaint, we will evaluate it and respond appropriately,” the university said in a statement, which also pointed to the outcome of the federal hearing on “another Lawfare Project-backed lawsuit.”

“San Francisco State is deeply committed to fighting all forms of discrimination, including anti-Semitism,” the statement continued. “We will continue to address concerns from our campus community and others while ensuring that Jewish students — and all students — are able to pursue their dreams in a safe, welcoming and inclusive environment. We invite the plaintiffs, and other organizations committed to these ideals, to join us in pursuing those objectives.”

This article has been updated to include a response from SFSU.

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