The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights has dismissed a complaint against UC Berkeley that claimed that campus protests critical of Israel’s policies created a hostile environment for Jewish students, and that the university had a legal obligation to curtail such demonstrations. The complaint was filed in July 2012 by two attorneys who had represented students in an unsuccessful lawsuit that raised similar claims against the university.
After an investigation that included review of extensive documentation provided by the university, interviews with the complainants and students and observation of campus demonstrations, OCR concluded that the demonstrations described in the complaint “constituted expression on matters of public concern directed to the university community. In the university environment, exposure to such robust and discordant expressions, even when personally offensive and hurtful, is a circumstance that a reasonable student in higher education may experience. In this context, the events that the complainants described do not constitute actionable harassment.”
OCR’s finding is consistent with the Dec. 21, 2011, ruling of U.S. District Court Judge Richard Seeborg in a case filed by two Jewish UC Berkeley students. Judge Seeborg held that the same demonstrations were constitutionally protected speech, and that university administrators had “engaged in an ongoing dialogue with the opposing parties in an attempt to ensure that the rights of all persons are respected, and to minimize the potential for violence and unsafe conditions.” In July 2011 the plaintiffs agreed to drop their suit, but their attorneys immediately filed a complaint with OCR reasserting the lawsuit’s allegations.
”We are pleased with the successful outcome of this investigation,” said UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks.“The claim that there is a hostile environment for Jewish students at Berkeley is, on its face, entirely unfounded. The campus takes great pride in its vibrant Jewish community and in the many academic and cultural opportunities available to members of that community and others interested in its history and culture. We will continue our ongoing efforts to protect free speech rights while promoting respectful dialogue and maintaining a campus environment that is safe for all our students.”
In recent years the university has taken significant and effective steps to ensure that interactions between student groups with opposing points of view remain civil and free of confrontation. The Berkeley campus has set up student and administration teams whose sole purpose is to monitor the campus environment, develop ideas that will help promote civility and respond quickly if participants engage in conduct that is not constitutionally protected and threatens to violate the rights of others. The university has also provided funding to student groups from a variety of perspectives who are interested in promoting a safe and respectful campus climate, including a group of Muslim and Jewish students who came forward with an innovative idea to promote dialogue and coexistence. The university has also established a website that allows any member of the community to anonymously report incidents, actions and speech that they believe violates the law, the university’s principles of community and/or the code of student conduct.
Download the notification from the Department of Education that it is dismissing the complaint against the campus (PDF).