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Academic Freedom Group Says Pomona BDS Bill Could ‘Seriously Imperil’ Rights of Jewish Student Groups

avatar by Jordan Esrig

Pomona College. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) condemned a BDS bill passed by Pomona College’s student government that seeks to defund student clubs that do not endorse the boycott — which could put campus organizations such as Hillel and Chabad at risk if they fail to divest from a United Nations Human Rights Council-drafted blacklist of major Israeli and American businesses. 

“We urge Pomona’s student government to reject calls to mandate support of a boycott,” FIRE’s letter stated, arguing that the student government’s restrictions on its own internal spending would pass muster for the group.  

But if a forced student club boycott were implemented, as also called for by the April 22 resolution, “it would seriously imperil the rights of student organizations that are either pro-Israel or prefer not to take a position,” wrote Adam Steinbaugh, director of FIRE’s Individual Rights Defense Program.  

He argued that boycotts are protected by freedom of expression, saying, “Recognizing that the freedoms of expression and association shield boycotts also means recognizing that they protect the choice not to participate in them: If a student organization has the right to boycott, it likewise has the right not to boycott. 

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While FIRE took aim at the attempt to defund student clubs that do not participate in the anti-Israel boycott, it also criticized some Jewish organizations seeking to pressure Pomona’s administration to nullify the student government resolution. In response to pro-Israel advocacy organization StandWithUs’s letter, calling on Pomona President G. Gabrielle Starr to invalidate the resolution, FIRE opined that such a measure would be an “infring[ment] [of] the student government’s ability to engage in its own expressive association.” 

Pomona College is a highly selective liberal arts college in Southern California and a member of the Claremont College consortium along with Claremont McKenna, Harvey Mudd, Scripps, and Pitzer colleges. A 1992 California statute known as the Leonard Law applies the First Amendment of the Constitution, usually invoked in free speech cases involving public universities, to private colleges such as Pomona. While the Law may prevent Pomona’s administration from nullifying the student government’s BDS bill, it may also restrict Pomona’s student government from defunding student clubs that do not comply with the bill. 

As FIRE noted in the Tuesday article, the group has allied itself with both pro-Israel and BDS groups depending on circumstances — recently coming to the defense of a “Progressive Zionists for Peace” student club initially denied a trial period at Skidmore College, as well as a supporting Students for Justice Palestine chapter after the group was banned at Fordham University.

“FIRE takes no position on boycotts of Israel or broader BDS movements, except to the extent such a boycott imposed by a university could negatively impact the free expression rights of faculty and students,” the letter said.

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