This post was updated on Nov. 23 at 5:26 p.m.
Three legal groups issued a letter to UCLA and student leaders Monday, calling for the graduate student government to lift recent funding restrictions on student events involving groups that take a stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The letter was issued in response to a series of emails between the Graduate Students Association president and a student group, in which the president said the GSA would not fund any event that endorses a political stance on divestment from Israel.
The Diversity Caucus, a student group that aims to advocate for diversity, requested $2,000 from the GSA to hold a town hall on Nov. 5, featuring Jerry Kang, vice chancellor of equity, diversity and inclusion. The event took place with funding from the undergraduate student government and GSA.
In a mid-October email to the Diversity Caucus, GSA president Milan Chatterjee said the association would approve funding for the town hall, but would deny the funds if the caucus endorsed or was involved with any movements or organizations related to the divestment from Israel issue.
Organizers from Students for Justice in Palestine, which set up a table at the town hall, contacted the three legal groups after hearing about the email exchange.
Earlier, on Oct. 26, the GSA passed a resolution stating it would remain neutral in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Manpreet Dhillon, a board member of the Diversity Caucus, said the caucus felt uncomfortable with GSA’s stipulations, but accepted the funding to promote diversity.
She added that Diversity Caucus did not consider student groups’ political stances. She said she thinks GSA was not being neutral because Milan restricted groups with stances on ‘divestment from Israel,’ which she said singled out SJP and other divestment supporters.
Dhillon said GSA threatened to take back their funding the day of the town hall because it heard a rumor SJP would take legal action, but the Diversity Caucus did not explicitly inform any student group of the stipulation.
“GSA leadership has a zero engagement/endorsement policy towards ‘Divest from Israel’ or any related movement or organization,” Chatterjee said in the email to Diversity Caucus leaders. “If we are aware the Diversity Caucus is engaging with any such movement – directly or indirectly – in the organization of this event, we’ll have to withdraw or recoup our allocation.”
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict concerns the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and what some say is the occupation of the Gaza Strip. The conflict has been a divisive issue on campus for years.
The three groups that sent the letter – Palestine Legal, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for Constitutional Rights – said they believe that restricting funding based on student groups’ political stances violates the groups’ First Amendment rights.
Chatterjee said if SJP is a registered Graduate Student Organizations, Leadership and Engagement organization, the group would have equal and fair access to GSA funding through the Discretionary Fund.
He declined to address the concerns raised by the three legal groups.
Chatterjee said he knew SJP would have a table at the event, and expressed to the Diversity Caucus that the tabling would not be a problem. He said he emphasized to the Diversity Caucus that GSA would not support groups leaning toward one side.
“SJP never informed GSA about their concerns regarding our funding to the town hall,” Chatterjee said in an email statement. “I’m very disappointed that instead of resolving any concerns in a productive and straightforward manner, SJP chose to back channel and take it to the extreme.”
He added GSA has been supportive to SJP in the past and held meetings with GSA and SJP leaders. He said GSA also connected the group to UC Student Regent Avi Oved.
Rahim Kurwa, a graduate student in sociology and a member of SJP, said SJP did not reach out to GSA before they contacted legal groups because it wanted to verify its assumption that the stipulations were illegal. The student group also spoke to Kang, who said he had not had time to read its email, and sent emails to other UCLA administrators, who also did not respond.
Liz Jackson, a member of Palestine Legal, said in the letter she does not think the graduate student government was trying to harm SJP, but they may have violated students’ First Amendment rights by adding a stipulation to its funding of the event.
“In this case, the GSA very clearly told the Diversity Caucus, ‘Your event can have zero connection with divestment from Israel,’” she said. “That is blatantly telling them you cannot endorse divestment or have funding, unless you agree to be silent on the issue.”
The First Amendment also protects freedom of association, which means GSA cannot tell student groups who they can be associated with and what groups are allowed to be a part of the town hall, she added.
Kurwa said he thinks GSA’s decision opens the door to censorship of other groups or opinions.
“If he can do this to SJP, then tomorrow he can do it to anyone else he wants,” Kurwa said. “They can say, ‘I’m not going to fund topics of race and gender.’”
Kurwa said he does not hold the Diversity Caucus against its decision to accept funding despite the stipulation because he thinks the town hall should still have been successful.
On Saturday Chatterjee filed a legal complaint to UCLA administration and requested legal counsel or reimbursement for outside legal counsel. Chatterjee said he thinks SJP and the legal groups are defaming his reputation with inaccurate complaints.
A UCLA spokesperson said the university does not have policies restricting funding of events based on political opinions or ideologies, but will support the First Amendment rights of all students. UCLA is investigating the claims made by the three legal groups.
Contributing reports by Ravija Harjai, Bruin contributor.