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UCLA can shield identities of Palestinian rights advocates to prevent harassment, judge rules

Royce Hall at UCLA
UCLA can shield the names of Palestinian rights advocates to protect their rights to freedom of association, speech and privacy, a Los Angeles judge ruled.
(Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

UCLA can continue to shield the identities of Palestinian rights activists to protect them from harassment and guard their constitutional rights to freedom of association, privacy and speech, a Los Angeles judge has ruled in a case that drew national attention to the volatile battles at college campuses over the Mideast conflict.

Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant denied a request by a New York attorney to order the disclosure of the names of 64 presenters at a 2018 conference sponsored by Students for Justice in Palestine at UCLA. The attorney, David Abrams of the Zionist Advocacy Center, said in court filings that he wanted the information for research into “anti-Israel terrorists” and was entitled to it under the California Public Records Act.

But the University of California, in its legal filings, said an internal investigation by UCLA police had concluded none of the speakers were terrorists and argued that disclosing their identities would subject them to harassment and undermine the university’s mission to promote free speech and academic inquiry.

UCLA provided evidence to the court of past harassment of campus supporters of Palestinian rights, including a declaration from a professor citing hate mail and efforts to get him fired and copies of fliers targeting students and faculty by name as allies of terrorists and promoters of “Jew hatred.”

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Chalfant ruled that UC had demonstrated its concerns were valid and outweighed any public interest in disclosure — especially because the speakers were private figures at a private student conference not sponsored or organized by UCLA.

Supporters of Palestinian rights hailed the ruling as a breakthrough, saying it marked the first time a court recognized they face harassment for their activities.

“This ruling is a victory that shows you cannot silence us,” said Irom Thockchom, who organized the 2018 conference while a student at UCLA and is now attending graduate school elsewhere. “The movement for justice is too strong.”

Abrams said he was considering options to appeal the ruling.

“I respectfully disagree with the Court’s decision,” Abrams wrote to The Times in a Facebook message. “Also, to be clear,
my purpose in filing the petition was not to “dox” anyone but rather to seek information for research purposes.” Doxxing refers to a practice of publishing private or identifying information about an individual on the internet.

The November 2018 conference ignited a national furor, coming at a time of deep unease in the Jewish community. Just a month earlier, a mass shooter had stormed a Pittsburgh synagogue, killing 11 people and wounding six in the deadliest attack against Jewish people in the United States. An Orange County synagogue had been vandalized. And in the Mideast, violent conflict had accelerated between Israeli forces and Palestinians.

UCLA was flooded with emails and calls to drop the conference, including a unanimous vote by the Los Angeles City Council backing cancellation. Others vowed to organize protests against the event, including a group of Israeli reserve combat soldiers. UCLA Chancellor Gene Block ultimately wrote an op-ed in The Times explaining that the campus would allow the event “to preserve the rights of all sides to speak and be heard.”

“It remains an awkward reality that our constitutional system, and democracy’s commitment to open debate, demand that Americans allow speech we may oppose and even defend the rights of those who might not defend ours,” Block wrote, adding that he had fundamental disagreements with the student group, including its support of the movement to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel.

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Abrams argued that UC cited no authority demonstrating a right to anonymous speech at a publicly funded conference at a public university. Chalfant said in the ruling that Abrams would be correct if the conference was sponsored by UCLA but “it was not. It was a student organized and led conference with minimal, if any, involvement by UCLA. That makes all the difference in the right to anonymous speech.”

UCLA declined to comment on the ruling but said in a statement that the campus and the UC system remained “firmly committed” against the boycott, divest and sanctions movement against Israel.

Abrams said Tuesday that he still wanted the opportunity to independently investigate whether the conference speakers were associated with terrorism. He said he was concerned UCLA had exaggerated the nature of its internal investigation, which appeared “quite cursory,” based on its description to him by campus authorities.

In court filings, Abrams said his past research had indicated that Students for Justice in Palestine, which is represented on more than 200 college campuses, had hosted “individuals associated with terrorist organizations” such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.

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But Roland Ruiz, a threat management sergeant with UCLA police, told the court that he had verified that the State Department had not listed the National Students for Justice in Palestine or the affiliated UCLA organization as terrorist organizations. No intelligence from federal agencies or the United Nations indicated that any of the speakers were involved with terrorism either, Ruiz said in court documents, adding that he also consulted the FBI, local intelligence agencies and combed websites and social media accounts.

Those involved in the 2018 conference scoffed at the suspicions Tuesday. “It’s a bunch of college students trying to come together for a cause we believe in,” one of the 64 speakers said in an interview, asking for anonymity to guard against harassment. “Of course we’re not terrorists. It seems pretty obvious.”

The person attended her first SJP conference in 2017 and was startled to find out that information about her gleaned from her social media accounts was soon posted on Canary Mission, an anonymously operated website that says it “documents people and groups that promote hatred of the USA, Israel and Jews” to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses. It also includes a warning to would-be employers in a promotional video: “Ensure that today’s radicals are not tomorrow’s employees.”

She and the other speakers at the 2018 event asked that their identities not be disclosed outside the private conference because they were nervous about the impact that such targeting would have on their safety and careers. On Tuesday, she said the court ruling had finally eased her mind.

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“It’s a big relief for sure,” she said. “I’m happy I don’t have to worry about harassment anymore.”


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