Hillel, YDSA, admin. clash over free speech rights

Photo courtesy of GT YDSA

Tech students are often involved in politics through active and vocal student groups. In April, the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) and Hillel chapters of Tech clashed in an incident that has put free speech and discrimination concerns center stage. 

On April 1, 2019, YDSA held a “Teach-in: Palestine 101” event that hosted speakers from Jewish Voice for Peace and Joining Hands for Justice in Palestine and Israel. The event was part of YDSA’s “Israeli Apartheid Week”, an international effort “to raise awareness about Israel’s apartheid regime over the Palestinian people and build support for the growing Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement,” according to apartheidweek.org.

The teach-in aligned with the Palestinian side of the sensitive and decades-long Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Hillel at GT, an organization advocating for and supporting Jewish Tech students, falls firmly on the opposite side of the conflict as an advocate for Israel.

“While we encourage civil discourse [and] discourage confrontation with these anti-Israel activists, several student leaders and staff will attend some of the week’s programs to offer a counter-narrative and questions,” said Lauren Blazofsky, director of Hillel at Tech, in a statement sent to members of the Hillel community several days before the teach-in. “We condemn organizations that view Israel as a colonialist entity, seek to question’s Israel’s legitimacy, or create a climate on campus where our Jewish students may feel threatened, or unable to celebrate their own Jewish identity.”

Blazofsky’s intention to offer a counter-narrative was impeded, however, when she was stopped at the entrance of the event by a co-chair of YDSA who recognized her. She was told by the co-chair that because she was there to disrupt the event, she would not be allowed in. Blazofsky argued with the co-chair, stating that because she is staff at Tech, Institute policy states that she must be allowed in. The co-chair refused to allow her entrance, and Blazofsky left the event.

Blazofsky’s claim was likely referring to Tech Policy 6.1.1 regarding free speech, which states that “assuming responsibility for the use of Institute facilities includes ensuring that the Institute does not restrict the First Amendment rights of the public, students, staff, and faculty, including protecting the rights of speakers to be heard, the rights of the Institute community to hear speakers, and the reputation of the Institute as a center for free speech and scholarly inquiry.”

After Blazofsky departed, the teach-in began. At some point during the talk, two women “began shouting questions and interrupting the speakers,” said the co-chair, whose name has not been made available to the Technique, in a statement. 

The women were told that the event was not a debate and that if they didn’t stop disrupting the event, they would be asked to leave. The women were permitted to stay for the duration of the event.

In the following days, two complaints were filed with the Office of Student Integrity (OSI): one from Blazofsky, and one from the women who attended the event. Blazofsky’s report stated that YDSA had “discriminated against others with differing opinions” by refusing to allow her entry to the teach-in.

YDSA was informed of complaints filed against them and was informed that they would be resolved within 30 business days, as is policy. However, OSI was unable to schedule a hearing between all active parties until September.

On Sept. 6, YDSA received a summons to appear at a Student Conduct Panel hearing on Sept. 17. According to Kat Rolinson, sixth-year ECON and RUSS student and YDSA co-chair present at the hearing, the organization was surprised by several changes that occurred on the day of the hearing. They were informed that they were being investigated for violation of Student Conduct Code Policy 21a instead of the original 21b. OSI also informed them that investigators had falsely conflated the two complaints and that the hearing that day would only cover Blazofsky’s complaint, not the attendees’.

On Oct. 4, the organization received notification that the student justices of OSI had found YDSA responsible for violating the Student Conduct Code Policy 21a, which prohibits “objectively offensive conduct directed at a particular person or persons” due to their status as a protected class and that results in exclusion from educational programs.

Associate Dean and Director for Student Integrity Bonnie Taylor wrote in the letter that she had reviewed and decided to accept the panel’s recommendation.

The sanctions imposed on the group included a nine-month disciplinary probation, creation of an action plan to host events with “other on-campus clubs to discuss differing viewpoints on subject matters,” creation of a risk management policy and a required meeting with the Office of Student Engagement.

YDSA found these sanctions to “miss the point” according to Rolinson.

Shortly after the receipt of this decision, YDSA wrote a lengthy appeal letter detailing the ways in which they believed OSI had mishandled the investigation and incorrectly found YDSA responsible for discrimination. The appeal will be reviewed by Associate Dean of Students Colleen Riggle.

“This sanction straightforwardly violates the First Amendment by compelling YDSA to engage in and endorse speech and political viewpoints with which we do not agree,” states the appeal letter. “The sanctions further indicate that the investigation and sanctions were aimed at the organization’s political viewpoints rather than any alleged misconduct.”

The appeal letter claimed that the complaint did not suggest that Blazofsky was targeted at the door based on a protected characteristic. The letter stated that YDSA believed that they did not receive enough time to review the evidence against them, which they received less than 24 hours before the start of the hearing. 

The letter goes on to detail further ways YDSA believes the investigation was mishandled, such changing the subject of the hearing at the last minute. In addition, the appeal letter states that the sanctions themselves violate the free speech rights of YDSA members.

“For the past six months, YDSA was subject to an open-ended, opaque, politically-motivated, and ultimately unlawful investigation of our organization and our individual members surrounding an April 1, 2019 meeting to discuss and promote our views on the situation in Palestine,” stated the appeal letter. “This investigation culminated in a hearing and decision that were procedurally rife with blatant errors, and a sanction that is itself unlawful.”

The appeal letter was supported by a letter from the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education addressed to Vice President for Student Life John Stein, which repeated many of YDSA’s claims and stated that “the sanctions are unsupported by sufficient evidence and premised on an interpretation of Georgia Tech’s policies that violates the institution’s binding legal obligations under the First Amendment. Accordingly, we call on Georgia Tech to end any pending investigation and rescind the sanctions imposed on YDSA.”

On Thursday, Oct. 24, YDSA leaders and members set about a vast publicity campaign intended to tell their side of the story. 

Their petition, which calls for the decision to be overturned and a public apology to be issued, lists 42 supporting organizations and has 829 signatures at the time of writing this article.

While Rolinson said that responses to the petition have been overwhelmingly positive, Blazofsky issued a statement to the Hillel community that was not so supportive and indicates surprise with regards to the results of the investigation. 

“As the complainant is not notified of the outcome of their incident report’s hearing, we only learned of the disciplinary action through YDSA’s petition against the university’s decision, calling for Georgia Tech to reject censorship, ignoring all of their wrongdoing and falsely trying to conflate issues of political differences that have nothing to do with the incident in question and outright discrimination,” writes Blazofsky. “The group that censored is asking Georgia Tech to reject censorship.

“Their plan to ban Lauren from the program was well thought out and predetermined, and in every step of that plan they acted antisemitically,” continued the statement. 

“They singled out Lauren because of her religious beliefs, because of her assumed politics, because of her connection to the Jewish community, AND because of her ethnicity.” 

Administration has mostly been quiet on the topic. In response to a request for comment from the Technique, Denise Ward, media relations lead, stated that “the appeals process prohibits us from discussing the details of this matter.”

“Georgia Tech supports student groups in their efforts to hold open forums. We do not restrict the First Amendment rights of the public, students, staff and faculty, which includes protecting the rights of speakers to be heard and the rights of the Institute community to hear speakers,” said Ward. “Our policy for Student Organizations Conduct outlines procedures that student organizations should follow, as well as their right to due process.”