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Students are lawyering up in the wake of the Israel-Hamas war

Columbia University senior Yusuf Hafez was in class in late October when his friend alerted him that his photograph was being shown around the university on a truck under a banner that proclaimed he was among “Columbia’s Leading Antisemites,” according to a recent lawsuit.

The conservative nonprofit, Accuracy in Media, also published a website containing his full name, he alleges. He says the website, which CNN has not been able to see independently, falsely claimed he was the president of a student organization that signed a pro-Palestinian letter that called for the university to cut ties with “apartheid Israel.” Hafez had not held a leadership role in the organization since May 2023, according to his suit.

Hafez, who CNN has reached out to for comment, is now suing Accuracy in Media for defamation and emotional distress, and the violation of his civil rights.

Hafez is among the politically and ethnically diverse students across the country who are filing lawsuits in the wake of October 7. Some are invoking the Civil Rights Act, claiming their schools aren’t protecting them from religious discrimination. Others are suing third-party organizations. More are seeking legal advice for claims of stifled First Amendment rights.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has for decades sparked contention on college campuses. Since Hamas’ October 7 attack on Israel and the resulting war in Gaza, Middle Eastern politics have become even more of a hot-button issue on college campuses — and an emotionally taxing one for many students grieving the destruction and loss of life.

“Because of his fears and emotional and physical distress, Plaintiff has been unable to go back to the Columbia campus, has been forced to attend classes remotely, and is unable to engage in his community groups, or social interactions,” the lawsuit said. The filing added that Hafez is also concerned about his employment opportunities after graduation.

Columbia University declined to comment on the ongoing lawsuit but shared its announcement of its Doxing Resource Group. In a previous statement, Columbia’s president Minouche Shafik said online harassment “will not be tolerated and should be reported through appropriate school channels. When applicable, we will refer these cases to external authorities.”

This month, three Jewish students sued New York University claiming their civil rights were violated over the university’s handling of alleged discrimination and harassment against Jewish students and other antisemitic acts.

Since October 7, the lawsuit alleges, NYU’s Jewish students “have been forced to run a campus gauntlet of verbal and physical harassment, threats, and intimidation,” and their complaints have been “ignored, slow-walked, or met with gaslighting by NYU administrators.”

John Beckman, a spokesperson for the university, said previously to CNN that the lawsuit fails to accurately describe conditions on campus and the “many steps” the university has taken to battle antisemitism.

“We take the issues of antisemitism and any other forms of hate extremely seriously, and we are committed to safeguarding our community and providing an environment in which all students can live and learn in peace. NYU was among the first universities in the US to publicly condemn Hamas’ terrorist attack on Israel,” Beckman said in a statement sent to CNN.

There are now more New York police and university officers on campus, Beckman said.

“NYU has promptly reviewed and opened investigations into reported complaints of antisemitism and related misconduct. NYU looks forward to setting the record straight, to challenging this lawsuit’s one-sided narrative, to making clear the many efforts NYU has made to combat antisemitism and provide a safe environment for Jewish students and non-Jewish students, and to prevailing in court.”

The students, the lawsuit says, have been the “target of repeated verbal and physical threats” and “made to feel unsafe on campus.“

“As a result of the hostile environment created by NYU, plaintiffs are traumatized: their schoolwork has suffered and they often stay in their dorms or apartments or go home to be with their families, rather than venturing out to face harassment from fellow students in class or the library or rampaging mobs in the streets hurling anti-Jewish epithets,” the complaint reads.

Should schools be worried?

The lawsuit by the NYU students alleges the school violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which protects people from discrimination in programs or activities that receive federal financial assistance. Almost every college and university receives some sort of federal funding.

Council on American-Islamic Relations lawyer Justin Sadowsky said it’s hard for students to file such lawsuits based on Title VI, mostly because “it’s not cheap.” That’s why organizations like his and others often help students file those kinds of complaints, often through the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education.

“There’s a lot more we’re fighting, and a lot of (CAIR’s) resources have to go there,” Sadowsky said.

One of the most pressing issues, he said, is defending and filing complaints against retaliation and doxxing against students for pro-Palestinian speech. Sadowsky contends that criticizing Israel’s policies and human rights record doesn’t equate to antisemitism.

“The open bounds of political speech are not harassment. Neither is supporting Palestine,” Sadowsky said.

In a sign of how high-profile college campuses have become, the US House Committee on Education and the Workforce, chaired by North Carolina Rep. Virginia Foxx, will hold a hearing with the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The purpose of the hearing is for the leaders to answer for alleged antisemitism on campuses.

A lot of the student cases at Palestine Legal, an organization that provides legal aid to those who support Palestinian rights, is investigating are about students defending their rights, staff attorney Dylan Saba said. “There are also suits and claims to be made against these universities for both discriminating against Palestinian students or students perceived to be Palestinian.”

Legal groups are also helping student organizations take their university systems to court. The American Civil Liberties Union and Palestine Legal helped the University of Florida (UF) chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine challenge the state’s order to disband the group on public campuses.

According to an October 24 letter to presidents in the state’s university system, State University of Florida Chancellor Ray Rodrigues ordered all SJP chapters in Florida to shut down because he alleged they violated the state’s anti-terrorism statute. The directive, he wrote, was issued “in consultation with Governor DeSantis.”

The ACLU said that the order “threatens the students’ constitutionally-protected right to free speech and association in violation of the First Amendment.” CNN has reached out to the State University System of Florida, who are the defendants in the lawsuit, for comment.

“As students on a public college campus, we have every right to engage in human rights advocacy and promote public awareness and activism for a just and reasonable solution to the Palestine-Israel conflict,” said the University of Florida’s SJP in a Palestine Legal statement. “We know we have First Amendment rights in school and we’re bringing this lawsuit to make sure the government doesn’t silence us or others like us.”

A UF spokesperson on Nov. 22 said the university hadn’t removed any student organizations.

“The University of Florida has been clear and upfront about our two foundational and legal commitments: We will protect our students and we will protect speech,” wrote Brittany Wise, UF’s director of communications. “Any student groups that break the law will be decertified. All UF student organizations that were in place before the Board of Governors’ memo are still in place now.”

Adam Steinbaugh, an attorney at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, said upticks in lawsuits and legal action happen slowly, often months after controversies arise.

“Certainly, I think that you will see additional legal action taken where there are First Amendment violations,” Steinbaugh said, using the Florida SJP lawsuit as an example. “Florida is a good example of lawyers warning university officials that if you violate students’ First Amendment rights, you’re not just putting the university in jeopardy of losing a lawsuit, but you may personally be liable for violating their rights.”

The question of Title VI

In a letter sent on November 7, the DOE reminded schools they are legally obligated to address discrimination against “those who are or are perceived to be Jewish, Israeli, Muslim, Arab, or Palestinian.”

Legal experts say this could pave the way for an influx of lawsuits and Department of Education Office for Civil Rights complaints tied to the Israel-Hamas war.

Enforcement of Title VI has established legal precedence, said Colorado civil rights lawyer Matthew Cron, such as when then-President Donald Trump in 2019 released an executive order saying Title VI prohibits discrimination against Jews, “when the discrimination is based on an individual’s race, color, or national origin.” The Department of Education later released a memo discussing the subject further. The courts have also found that antisemitic and anti-Muslim harassment equals racial discrimination.

“We believe that a number of universities are violating Title VI in this moment. And I anticipate that many more of these types of claims will be filed in the future,” Saba said.

For example, earlier this year Palestine Legal claimed in a civil rights complaint the University of Illinois Chicago violated Title VI after the school allegedly barred students with “Arab-sounding names” from being admitted to a Zoom informational session on studying abroad in Israel. The case is still ongoing.

UIC said it has not yet received a formal notification for the complaint filed with the OCR. “To maintain a fair and impartial process, the university refrains from commenting on matters related to ongoing investigations, including those initiated by the OCR. We take all allegations of civil rights violations seriously and will fully cooperate with any inquiries that may arise from a complaint,” the university said in a statement.

Kenneth Marcus, the founder and chairman of the Brandeis Center, whose mission is to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people, said the center has been slammed with students seeking to file Title VI claims.

The Brandeis Center filed a civil rights complaint earlier this month alleging that, “in recent months,” the University of Pennsylvania allowed its campus to “become…a hostile environment for its Jewish students” and, in a separate complaint, alleged that Wellesley College “failed to take prompt and effective steps…to eliminate the hostile environment created through the shunning and marginalization of Jewish students.”

In a statement, Wellesley said it was notified the OCR would be conducting a review. The school said it responded “quickly and decisively” to an incident at a residence hall that raised concern. It also said it welcomes OCR review on “a teach-in in which several Wellesley faculty shared historical context and perspective on the Israel/Palestine conflict with students.”

“Wellesley has been committed to addressing issues of antisemitism on our campus and will continue to work to create an environment that supports free expression and rejects all forms of hate and discrimination,” the school said in a statement.

UPenn also said it received a letter from the department. “The University is taking clear and comprehensive action to prevent, address, and respond to antisemitism, with an action plan anchored in the National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism,” the school said in a statement. “President Magill has made clear antisemitism is vile and pernicious and has no place at Penn; the University will continue to vigilantly combat antisemitism and all forms of hate.”

“We’ve never been busier,” said Marcus, who was part of the OCR during the Trump and George W. Bush administrations. “We have had a massive and unprecedented spike since October 7.”

The legal standard for Title VI cases is high, Cron said. The conduct on campus has to be so severe that it denies victims equal access to education, and the university has to have acted with deliberate indifference toward harassment of students.

Students at private schools such as the Ivy League may have more limitations on free speech than students at public universities. Private universities aren’t directly bound by the First Amendment, which regulates government action, but many private schools have adopted free speech principles such as the Chicago Statement.

A general sense of a toxic environment or political turmoil has less of a chance of holding up in court, Cron said.

“Students that have experienced racial epithets, or anti-religious, antisemitic epithets, or were physically accosted in some way,” Cron said. “Coupled with protests going on in the background, then that seems to me to be a stronger Title VI case.”

A new doxxing tactic

In some cases, students are even suing third-party organizations directly, without the apparent help of any legal groups.

According to Hafez’s complaint, AIM bought a web domain, uploaded Yusuf Hafez’s picture and falsely claimed he was a leader of the Arab cultural organization and a student signatory of a “hateful, antisemitic letter.”

“The weight of responsibility for the war and casualties undeniably lies with the Israeli extremist government and other Western governments, including the U.S. government, which fund and staunchly support Israeli aggression, apartheid and settler-colonization,” the statement said.

As of November 15, two days after the lawsuit was filed, the domain appears to have been taken down.

The mobile billboard contained his name and picture, under the banner “Columbia’s Leading Antisemites” and was driven around the university area for roughly 7 hours, the lawsuit alleged.

The lawsuit alleges that the use of Hafez’s image on the billboard had the goal of profiting AIM, prominently asking users to donate to the organization.

AIM said the group has faced harassment, as well, but did not respond to the allegations in the lawsuit.

“Over the past several weeks, our leadership and staff have experienced death threats, SWATTING attempts, harassment, and assault,” the organization said in a statement. “Legal warfare is simply the latest tool that is being utilized in an attempt to intimidate and silence us.”

– CNN’s Matt Egan and Celina Tebor contributed to this report.

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