In an email statement to the campus community on May 16, Chancellor Gene Block stressed the importance of civil discourse in campus conversation, saying, “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.”
By attempting to disguise political speech in a cloak of ethicality and morality, the Students for Justice in Palestine debased the healthy debate that should take place on our campus by intimidating two individuals, Lauren Rogers and Sunny Singh. When it filed a case with the Undergraduate Students Association Council Judicial Board, Students for Justice in Palestine took its politicking to court, wrongly accusing two former student councilmembers of having a conflict of interest when they voted on divestment.
This was never about ethicality or morality, but was instead a thinly veiled attempt to challenge the academic freedom that all students should cherish at this esteemed university.
On Wednesday afternoon, nearly a week after hearing the case, the USAC Judicial Board released its verdict. In a 4-0-2 decision, the Board determined that neither Singh nor Rogers had a conflict of interest while voting.
The decision is unequivocally the right one.
While the issues that surrounded this case became politically charged, the fact of the matter is that this case should not have been a platform to debate global issues. The case was not brought against activist groups. It was not brought against international organizations. Rather, it was brought against two undergraduate students.
The students, Singh and Rogers, chose to do two things. They chose to expand and pursue their academic interests through educational programs, and they chose to serve the undergraduate student body as members of USAC. For doing so, we applaud and commend them.
The students who chose to bring the charges of conflict of interest against them picked the wrong arena for their fight. They sought to espouse their views about a global conflict through a hearing about undergraduate ethics. In doing so, they threatened the principles of academic freedom that our university is built upon as well as the reputations of our student body’s elected officials.
In a public statement on Twitter, Dana Saifan, the petitioner’s counsel and president of Students for Justice in Palestine, made it clear that she saw this not as an opportunity to bring to justice councilmembers who might have violated USAC bylaws, but rather as a platform to take “the Israel lobby to court.”
As the undergraduate legal counsel to Singh and Rogers, there is an adage that this case reminded us of:
“When the facts are on your side, argue the facts. When the law is on your side, argue the law. And when neither the facts nor the law are on your side, bang your fist on the table as loud as you can.”
Those students who chose to publicly accuse Singh and Rogers of having a conflict of interest came to the table on May 15 with neither the facts nor the law on their side. The Judicial Board’s decision proves that.
Instead, they chose to bang their fists on the table as loudly as they were able to.
The decision rendered by the Judicial Board is one that attempts to set to right the wrongs done to Singh and Rogers. Their reputations were damaged, their behavior was scrutinized and, most egregiously of all, their constitutional freedoms of association were jeopardized.
UCLA is an academic institution, and as students, we came here with a common purpose. We came here to learn. By ruling in favor of Singh and Rogers, the Judicial Board has preserved the right of each student, regardless of whether or not they are elected officials, to pursue that common goal in the manner that best suits them.
This case sets a precedent on this campus – that education does not constitute a conflict of interest. Free speech rights do not permit the use of harassment to intimidate students into surrendering their freedom of association and the educational prerogative they have as elected officials and as students.
We must respect one another. We cannot condemn those who make choices we disagree with. We cannot be petulant. We cannot be petty.
We cannot bang our fists on the table and hope that the noise draws attention.
In light of these troubling affronts to the educational freedom of our peers, we call upon all councilmembers to pledge to be as educated as possible on any issue that may come before them. Whatever opportunities for education exist, our elected officials have a responsibility to seek them out. In doing so, they, and all students at UCLA, exercise their constitutionally protected freedoms of association and speech.
Ian Cocroft is a second-year political science student. Katie Takakjian is a third-year classics student. Cocroft and Takakjian acted as counsel for Singh and Rogers in the Judicial Board case.