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Palestinian student group's disruption of Israeli film screening violated conduct policies but wasn't threatening, UCI says

UC Irvine administrators announced this week that a Palestinian student group violated student conduct policies when it disrupted an Israeli film screening in May, though the university said many allegations of other wrongdoing by the group were unfounded.

In a campuswide email sent Thursday, Thomas Parham, vice chancellor of student affairs, said Students for Justice in Palestine wrongly disrupted the May 18 on-campus screening of "Beneath the Helmet," a film about Israeli soldiers, and has received a written warning as a result.

In a report dated Thursday, the Office of Student Conduct states that university policy prohibits "obstruction or disruption of teaching, research, administration, disciplinary procedures or other university activities."

The group is being required to host a "power mapping" educational program for its members that must be completed by Nov. 18.

The program is designed to help SJP members "better understand how to host constructive events and protests if they want to protest and add to the conversation, rather than detract" from it, UCI spokeswoman Cathy Lawhon said Friday.

The written warning, she said, puts SJP on notice through March that its behavior is under increased scrutiny and that another violation could lead to harsher consequences.

"UCI values its diverse mix of cultures and opinions," Parham said in his email. "We support and defend groups exercising free speech and assembly, yet we must protect everyone's right to express themselves without disruption. This is a bedrock principle of our university.

"Let's continue to work together to foster a safe environment that allows the open, civil and robust exchange of ideas to flourish."

In the Office of Student Conduct report — reviewed by the Daily Pilot on Friday — investigator Crystal Rae Lugo-Shearer concludes that many of the allegations against SJP in May were unfounded, among them that SJP demonstrators harassed, threatened and terrorized people attending the screening.

The report, which includes testimony from 11 witnesses who claimed they feared for their safety, also states that it was "not likely" that SJP members blocked the entrances and exits of the classroom where "Beneath the Helmet" was screened. It also says a filmgoer was not "chased" by SJP demonstrators and that the demonstrators did not bang on the windows or doors.

SJP members did, the report states, demonstrate so loudly that the filmgoers were unable to hear the movie and, for a time, needed to turn up the volume.

Orange County district attorney's office spokeswoman Roxi Fyad said Friday that her office informally reviewed information about the incident provided by UCI police. Prosecutors decided a crime hadn't been committed, and no criminal charges will be filed, she said.

Sean Garcia-Leys, a student advisor with the National Lawyers Guild at the UCI law school who is working with SJP, called the allegations "malicious fabrications."

"Everything was found to not be credible except that students were loud — loud enough to make it difficult to watch the movie," he said.

Garcia-Leys said the SJP members felt unfairly excluded from what was supposed to be a public event, "solely because of their political beliefs."

"There should be student conduct charges against the group that hosted the meeting that locked them out," he said.

But Garcia-Leys said SJP does not plan to appeal Thursday's decision.

In a joint statement Friday, executives of two Jewish groups called UCI's decision "a step in the right direction."

But Lisa Armony, executive director of the Hillel Foundation of Orange County, and Eric Fingerhut, president and chief executive of Hillel International, said "further action is needed to ensure Jewish students are protected and afforded the right to free speech and assembly, and to make clear that efforts to thwart those freedoms by groups or individuals will not be tolerated."

The pair called on UCI to "ensure the educational program to be hosted by SJP is a sincere sanction that addresses the motivations behind their conduct violation, as well as anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism."

bradley.zint@latimes.com

Twitter: @BradleyZint

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