Lawyers representing Hillels of Georgia contend that Georgia Institute of Technology “has willfully ignored” anti-Semitic activity and have asked the federal Department of Education to conduct a civil rights investigation.
In a Dec. 27 letter to Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus, attorneys from the American Center for Law and Justice said, “We write to respectfully urge you to investigate and determine whether Georgia Tech has engaged in discrimination, in permitting a hostile environment, and other violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.”
The complaint centers on an April 1 incident in which Lauren Blazofsky, director of Hillel at Georgia Tech, was barred from entering an on-campus room where the Young Democratic Socialists of America were holding a “Teach-in: Palestine 101” as part of Israel Apartheid Week.
“As an American Jew, the world we live in right now is really scary,” Blazofsky told the Atlanta Jewish Times. “I never anticipated dealing with something like this. I was definitely frustrated when it first happened, but I think I’m even more saddened by how the university has handled it and not acknowledged that anti-Semitism happened.”
ACLJ alleged that “Georgia Tech allowed blatant anti-Semitic exclusion and harassment at a campus group event, attempted to conceal the offense, repeatedly and systemically stonewalled Jewish student and faculty efforts to address the incident; ignored two out of the three complaints arising from said event; and after a student conduct board finally found the campus group guilty on the one complaint they did hear, violated their own policies and issued a decision on appeal reversing that guilty ruling – allowing the anti-Semitism to continue unchecked.”
On Dec. 11, President Donald Trump issued an executive order expanding enforcement of Title VI – which specifies discrimination based on “race, color, or national origin” – to include anti-Semitism.
There are 500-plus Jewish students at Georgia Tech, a small fraction of the campus population. Most are undergraduates.
The lead attorney representing Hillels of Georgia pro bono is Mark Goldfeder, ACLJ’s Special Counsel for International Affairs. Formerly a fellow at Emory University’s Center for Law and Religion, Goldfeder also is an ordained rabbi, religious court judge, and Hillel’s general counsel. “We reached out in good faith to try and get the school to rectify the situation and clarify what happened. They were not willing to do what was necessary and so we informed them that we would be moving forward,” Goldfeder told the AJT.
ACLJ describes itself as “an organization dedicated to the defense of constitutional liberties secured by law.” Its chief counsel, Jay Sekulow, is well-known from cases he’s argued before the U.S. Supreme Court and his television and radio appearances. He’s currently assisting Trump’s impeachment defense team.
After the April 1 incident, Blazofsky filed a complaint with Georgia Tech’s Office of Student Integrity, as did two Jewish female students who were allowed to attend and felt “that they had been singled out and harassed at the event,” the ACLJ letter stated.
“Ms. Blazofsky was denied entry because Ms. Blazofsky is Jewish and affiliated with a Jewish organization on Georgia Tech’s campus,” the letter said. “After an unacceptable five-month delay,” a hearing on Blazofsky’s complaint was held in September by the OSI. No hearing has been held on the complaints by the two Jewish students.
OSI’s student justices determined that YDSA violated the Student Conduct Code Policy, which prohibits “objectively offensive conduct directed at a particular person or persons” for reasons that include religion. An associate dean accepted the finding and, according to the Georgia Tech newspaper, the Technique, sanctions imposed on YDSA “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 appealed, calling itself the victim of “an open-ended, opaque, politically-motivated, and ultimately unlawful investigation of our organization and our individual members,” the Technique reported.
The sanctions were overturned in November.
“I think that I always anticipated that it always would be handled by the university and, maybe naively of me, I assumed that the university would recognize what took place and the wrongdoing of YDSA,” Blazofsky said. She added that she learned of the reversal not from the university but from a YDSA Twitter post.
ACLJ was dissatisfied with the explanation it received from the university. “The only indication Georgia Tech would give the undersigned ACLJ counsel was that it had something to do with the fact that since other Jewish people were allowed into the event, there could not have been anti-Semitism after all. This classic trope, in the vein of ‘some of my best friends are ____,’ is itself anti-Semitic, so much so that it has become shorthand for weak denials of bigotry – a punch line about the absence of thoughtfulness and rigor in our conversations about racism,” the letter stated.
A YDSA chapter co-chair (who asked to be identified by his first name, “Harry”) sent the AJT a statement: “The allegations in the complaint are total fabrications. These allegations erase the many Jewish YDSA GT members, Jews who serve in YDSA GT leadership like myself, and Jewish attendees of the event in question, who oppose the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. No discrimination has ever taken place. The only harassment during the event in question was orchestrated by the complainant . . . and carried out by two students affiliated with Hillel of Georgia Tech, who disrupted our event to yell racist remarks at the Palestinian speakers that we invited to tell their stories. This is an attempt to censor and intimidate critics of the far-right racist Israeli government, plain and simple.”
An Education Department spokesman told the AJT that “as a policy, OCR [Office of Civil Rights] will not confirm the receipt of complaints publicly.”
A Georgia Tech spokesman told the AJT: “We are aware that the American Center for Law and Justice has requested that the Department of Education investigate Georgia Tech’s handling of the matter involving YDSA and Hillel. The Department has not contacted us about that request, and we will cooperate fully if it does. Georgia Tech maintains a strong anti-discrimination policy, as well as policies that support our community’s First Amendment rights to free speech.”
ACLJ’s letter to Marcus concluded, “The clear message that Georgia Tech is communicating is that they are deliberately indifferent to the concerns and wellbeing of its Jewish population. … Without prompt and appropriate action – including requiring Georgia Tech to evenhandedly enforce its own rules and procedures and comply with Title VI – Jewish students will continue to be victimized by Georgia Tech’s implied consent for anti-Semitic discrimination and racism; will be unable to participate at additional campus functions; and will continue to be harassed and excluded.”