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Students respond to criticisms of joint ethics statement by Block, Napolitano

By amanda schallert and Jessica Doumit

May 16, 2014 10:33 p.m.

This article was updated on May 18 at 8:35 p.m.

UCLA Chancellor Gene Block and University of California President Janet Napolitano released statements on Friday criticizing students’ efforts to discourage undergraduate student government leaders from taking free or sponsored trips with certain lobbying groups.

The majority of candidates participating in the Undergraduate Students Association Council election signed onto the Joint Statement on USAC Ethics, promising to refrain from certain pro-Israel lobbying organizations and non-student centered groups while holding office.

Block and Napolitano said the statement targeted groups with certain political perspectives and was harmful to communities at the UC.

Several student groups, including Students for Justice in Palestine, the Armenian Students’ Association, the Afrikan Student Union and the Muslim Students Association, responded to Block’s statement in public releases on Saturday that said he was dismissive toward certain student groups and wrongly portrayed the Joint Statement on USAC Ethics as trying to discriminate against others.

“(Block’s) claims imply that the point of the statement was to delegitimize groups based on national and/or religious identification, or to attack students who have a certain stance on political issues,” Students for Justice in Palestine said in a statement. “Nothing could be further from the truth.”

In the past week, the statement has garnered a significant amount of backlash from some students on campus, various activist media outlets and several pro-Israel lobbying groups. Pro-Israel organizations also voiced their disagreement with the statement at a UC Board of Regents meeting last week.

Block said in his email that while students had the right to distribute the pledge and sign the statement, he thinks it was an attempt to delegitimize certain organizations’ trips he views as educational.

“I am troubled that the pledge can reasonably be seen as trying to eliminate selected viewpoints from the discussion. … Political speech that stigmatizes or casts aspersions on individuals or particular groups does not promote healthy debate but debases it by trying to intimidate individuals and groups,” Block said in the email.

Napolitano also issued a brief press release Friday, saying that the statement violated the UC principles of “civility, respect and inclusion,”and asked the UC community to progress through dialogue.

“I encourage members of the university community … to come together, in open dialogue, to discuss the great issues of our day, learn from each other, and work to move our society forward. Harmful, hurtful speech by some hurts us all,” Napolitano said in the statement.

Sarah Rahimi, a fourth-year international development studies student and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine, said she thinks Block’s statement did not accurately represent the goals of the Joint Statement on USAC Ethics and was not sent in the interest of all students.

“This (ethics statement) is not about targeting Jewish groups, this is about holding everyone at a standard of integrity,” Rahimi said.

Members of the Armenian Students’ Association, who helped draft the pledge, said in a statement Friday that they are disappointed in Block and think he is promoting a double standard by favoring some campus groups over others.

Group members added that they think Block did not address legitimate concerns some students have about certain external lobbying groups, which they say have histories of marginalizing the Armenian-American community.

“The concerns of students were dismissed in order to appease external lobbying organizations and reaffirm the right of student body representatives to affiliate themselves with marginalizing groups,” said the Armenian Students’ Association statement. “A large segment of the student body will now feel they are subject to reproach by our university’s administration for standing for what is right and just.”

On Thursday, Bruins for Israel issued a press release that said the statement was “offensive and unethical” and that it “exclusively attacks the organized Jewish and pro-Israel communities at UCLA.”

Miriam Eshaghian, a fourth-year psychobiology student and the president of Bruins for Israel, said she thinks Block’s and Napolitano’s statements perfectly addressed how the Joint Statement on USAC Ethics restricted students’ freedom of association and educational experiences.

Eshaghian said she thinks the statement was an attempt to limit students’ ability to learn about Israel and has intimidated students who want to pursue trips she thinks are educational.

In February, USAC voted down a controversial resolution that called for UCLA and the UC to divest from companies that profit from the Israeli military’s occupation of Gaza and the West Bank.

The USAC Judicial Board is currently reviewing whether two former councilmembers engaged in a conflict of interest for voting on the resolution after going on trips with the Anti-Defamation League and Project Interchange. Members of Students for Justice in Palestine, which brought the resolution to council along with other student groups, filed the Judicial Board petition.

Block said in his statement that he will ask the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs to explore ways to promote more constructive and respectful dialogue on political issues.

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