Opponents of a lawsuit alleging systemic anti-Semitism at San Francisco State University protest outside during a hearing on dismissing the case, Nov. 8, 2017 (Photo/Rob Gloster)
Opponents of a lawsuit alleging systemic anti-Semitism at San Francisco State University protest outside during a hearing on dismissing the case, Nov. 8, 2017 (Photo/Rob Gloster)

Suit alleging anti-Semitism at S.F. State stalled while plaintiffs amend complaint

A federal judge said today that he will dismiss a complaint filed by Jewish students and community members alleging systemic anti-Semitism at San Francisco State University, but he gave the Jewish group the right to amend it and refile the suit. Attorneys representing the plaintiffs vowed to do so, saying the suit will go forward.

U.S. District Judge William Orrick said at the end of a 57-minute pre-trial hearing that the suit filed by the Lawfare Project on behalf of the Jewish students lacked specificity and needed to focus on the current situation on campus, and not on what the suit had claimed was a half-century of anti-Semitism at SFSU.

“Undoubtedly, I’m going to dismiss the complaint with leave to amend, and I’d start honing the complaint,” Orrick advised Seth Weisburst, an attorney for Lawfare. “A shorter, plainer statement of the claim would be a better submission.”

Attorney Amanda Berman, Lawfare’s director of legal affairs, said, “Obviously it would be better if we didn’t have to amend, but all things considered, it’s not a very bad outcome. We will address those issues.”

Lawfare filed the suit in June, pointing to decades of anti-Semitism at SFSU and focusing on the campus shout-down of Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat by pro-Palestinian groups in April 2016 and San Francisco Hillel’s exclusion from the February 2017 “Know Your Rights” fair on campus. The suit seeks monetary and punitive damages, admission of fault and actions aimed at protecting Jews on campus.

“Jews are afraid to walk from point A to point B on campus. They are afraid to wear a Jewish star (necklace),” Weisburst said in the hearing. “Jews are treated like second-class citizens on this campus. It’s not just from students, it’s from the administration.”

SF State Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (center), one of the figures at the center of the lawsuit, awaits the judge's ruling on dismissal, Nov. 8, 2017 (Photo/Rob Gloster)
SF State Professor Rabab Abdulhadi (center), one of the figures at the center of the lawsuit, awaits the judge’s ruling on dismissal, Nov. 8, 2017 (Photo/Rob Gloster)

The Lawfare case specifically targeted Rabab Abdulhadi, a professor in SFSU’s College of Ethnic Studies, and asked that she be compelled to pay damages. Judge Orrick said that the complaint as worded did not show that “she acted with specific intent to discriminate against the plaintiffs.”

Weisburst could not say specifically when the case would have its next day in court, but noted, “We expect an order from the court that will provide us guidance in the near future, and we’re confident we’ll be able to amend the complaint to address the concerns the court has.”

About 60 people rallied outside the courthouse before the hearing, calling for the suit to be dismissed and saying Lawfare’s suit was an attempt to stifle free speech at SFSU and to silence Abdulhadi. They then packed the courtroom and later celebrated the judge’s decision.

“This is new McCarthyism, to silence any Muslim,” Abdulhadi told supporters after the hearing. “They want to be able to stop us from being able to speak, they want to stop me from teaching.”

Weisburst said, “This case is not an effort to silence anybody’s speech, regardless of political viewpoint. This case is about what happened to the plaintiffs.”

One of Abdulhadi’s attorneys, Ben Gharagozli, said he looks forward to Lawfare refiling the case.

“The plaintiffs are going to have another chance to humiliate themselves in court,” he said after the hearing. “It would have been great for it to end here, but I think this is even better because we get to beat them again.”

An SFSU investigation of the “Know Your Rights” incident reported in July that Hillel was a victim of retaliation and was denied its free-speech rights, but rejected accusations of religious discrimination in the group’s exclusion of Hillel from the fair. That case remains on appeal.

CORRECTION, 11/9, 10:30 a.m.: The headline and first paragraph were amended to more accurately reflect the judge’s pronouncements regarding the lawsuit. The last paragraph was changed to better reflect the current status of San Francisco State University’s investigation of the Know Your Rights fair.

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Rob Gloster

Rob Gloster is J.'s senior writer. He can be reached at rob@jweekly.com.