So far, the Justice Department has focused its efforts on free speech cases involving conservatives and Christians.
“Universities have been a beacon of free speech and thought — that is what they have been for all these years, but only certain students are afforded that right to free speech.”
— Imraan Siddiqi, the executive director of CAIR-Arizona
A lawsuit against one of America’s largest public universities could pose a major test for the Justice Department’s commitment to campus free speech.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) filed a lawsuit in federal court last week against Arizona State University, accusing the school of violating Muslim students’ right to free speech and rights to equal protection by enforcing a ban on speakers who call for boycotting Israel.
The suit was filed on behalf of American Muslims for Palestine and its founder, Hatem Bazian, shortly after Arizona State’s Muslim Students Association invited him to speak at what is billed as an “educational event regarding Palestinian perspectives on Middle East conflict” on April 3.
Bazian, a senior lecturer at University of California in Berkeley, said he could not agree to the school’s speaker’s contract because of a “no boycott of Israel” clause that essentially bars him and others from participating “solely because they engage in and advocate for economic boycotts of Israel as a means to promote Palestinians’ human rights,” according to the lawsuit.
The suit contends that the Arizona law behind the clause “constitutes viewpoint discrimination that chills constitutionally protected political advocacy on behalf of Palestine.” That law prohibits activity backing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel and in support of Palestinian rights.
The suit poses a test for the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has made protecting free speech at public universities a top priority for the Department of Justice. In September, Sessions decried what he termed the transformation of US colleges from centers of academic freedom into “an echo chamber of political correctness and homogenous thought, a shelter for fragile egos.”
Sessions said a “national recommitment to free speech on campus is long overdue,” and said the DOJ would take action to ensure First Amendment rights.
“We will enforce federal law, defend free speech, and protect students’ free expression from whatever end of the political spectrum it may come,” he said.