The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

Volokh Conspiracy

Court Overturns Fordham's Decision Not to Recognize Students for Justice in Palestine Chapter

Though Fordham is a private university, under New York law private university decisions that violate the universities' own stated rules may be set aside by a court.


In Awad v. Fordham University, 2019 WL 3550713, dated last Monday but apparently just made public, several Fordham undergraduates asked the school to recognize "Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University" as a student group. Their proposal said the group aimed "to build support in the Fordham community among people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds for the promotion of justice, human rights, liberation, and self-determination for the indigenous Palestinian people," and "is organized around the principles of the call by Palestinian civil society for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel."

Fordham's published rules include Section 2(a) of the Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus United Student Government Operations Committee Club Guidelines ("the Guidelines"), which provides that a club's purpose, as set forth in the club's constitution, must state "how th[e] Club will benefit the Fordham community." Section 2(e) requires a "[s]tatement that the Club will not restrict membership based upon national origin, race, religion, creed, gender, sexual orientation, age, or physical handicap." Section 8(h) of the Guidelines provides that the Dean of Students has a right to veto any new club, but the Guidelines do not articulate or enumerate any grounds on which the Dean may exercise such a veto. Moreover, the Guidelines themselves are unclear as to whether that veto must be exercised prior to a vote by the USG [United Student Government] Executive Board and Senate.

However, Section I of the 2016-2017 Fordham University Lincoln Center Campus United Student Government Operations Committee Club Registration Process provides, in relevant part, that:

"The Operations Committee will work with you in editing your constitution. After all revisions to the constitution have been made in accordance with constitutional guidelines, the packet will be submitted to the Director of the Office for Student Involvement and then to the Dean of Students.

"Once a club's constitution is approved by the Director of the Office for Student Involvement and the Dean of Students, the packet is to be forwarded to the USG Senate for their recommendations and final approval.

"Upon approval by above-mentioned parties, the club is considered a registered organization of F[ordham] C[ollege] L[incoln] C[enter] and G[abelli] S[chool of] B[usiness]."

Despite this, after the USG approved the SJP chapter, Dean of Students Keith Eldredge rejected the application, saying,

"After consultation with numerous faculty, staff and students and my own deliberation, I have decided to deny the request to form a club known as Students for Justice in Palestine at Fordham University. While students are encouraged to promote diverse political points of view, and we encourage conversation and debate on all topics, I cannot support an organization whose sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group, and against a specific country, when these goals clearly conflict with and run contrary to the mission and values of the University.

"There is perhaps no more complex topic than the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and it is a topic that often leads to polarization rather than dialogue. The purpose of the organization as stated in the proposed club constitution points toward that polarization. Specifically, the call for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions of Israel presents a barrier to open dialogue and mutual learning and understanding." …

New York state court Nancy M. Bannon held that this violated Fordham's own rules:

"Courts have a restricted role in reviewing determinations of colleges and universities. A determination will not be disturbed unless a school acts arbitrarily and not in the exercise of its honest discretion, [or] it fails to abide by its own rules."… As long as the petition alleges specific facts "giving rise to a fair inference" that the determination was arbitrary and capricious, dismissal for failure to state a cause of action is not warranted.

The petition here more than satisfies that standard, as it clearly alleges that Fordham procedurally violated its own rules concerning the recognition of student clubs by permitting a dean to overrule a vote of the USG, and imposed a newly identified factor in considering whether approval is warranted or not, namely whether a group may add to the "polarization" of persons with differing opinions on contested topics of the day….

Generally, the denial of a motion to dismiss the petition in a CPLR article 78 proceeding is followed by the service and filing of an answer and administrative record, or return. However, where "it is clear that no dispute as to the facts exists and no prejudice will result" a court, upon a respondent's motion to dismiss, may decide the petition on the merits.

Under the circumstances presented here, service of an answer is not necessary, as the facts have been fully presented in the parties' papers, and no factual dispute remains….

A determination is arbitrary and capricious where is not rationally based, or has no support in the record. A determination may also be annulled as arbitrary and capricious where the decision maker considers inappropriate factors in coming to his or her decision. In addition, a determination of a university, acting in its administrative capacity, may be set aside where the university does not abide by its own rules….

Here, Fordham did not abide by its own published rules governing the approval and recognition of student clubs, inasmuch as it seemingly imposed an additional tier of review, by a dean, of an approval already rendered by the USG. This deviation from usual practice is particularly notable here, since the USG was only empowered to vote for approval of a club in the first instance where prior approval has already been granted by the Director of the Office for Student Involvement and the Dean of Students. Indeed, the Dean's abrupt change from preliminary approval to rejection was made without a rational explanation or any change in circumstances. In the context of administrative determinations, "[a] change in something from yesterday to today creates doubt. When the anticipated explanation is not given, doubt turns to disbelief," and such an unexplained change necessarily requires the conclusion that the ultimate determination was arbitrary.

Moreover, the ground for overruling the USG, as articulated by Dean Eldredge, was the potential "polarization" of the Fordham community were SJP to be formally recognized. Although the Dean, in determining whether to veto any new club, has discretion to evaluate whether the club will promote Fordham's mission, this discretion is neither unlimited nor unfettered. The issue of whether a club's political message may be polarizing is not enumerated or identified as a relevant factor in any governing or operating rules, regulations, or guidelines issued Joy Fordham, and appears to have been arbitrarily considered by Dean Eldredge after input from others who are critical of SJP's political beliefs. Importantly, consideration of whether a group's message may be polarizing is contrary to the notion that universities should be centers of discussion of contested issues.

"The classroom is peculiarly the marketplace of ideas. The Nation's future depends upon leaders trained through wide exposure to that robust exchange of ideas which discovers truth out of a multitude of tongues, [rather] than through any kind of authoritative selection." Keyishian v Board of Regents 385 US 589, 603 (1967).

Contrary to Fordham's contention, its status as a private university does not mandate dismissal of the petition. Although Fordham is not a public university, and thus not expressly subject to First Amendment limitations on its right to restrict opinions that might be controversial or unpopular, Fordham's own rules, regulations, and guidelines do not empower the Dean of Students to restrict the university's recognition of a student club based on its potential for raising issues or taking political position's that might be controversial or unpopular with a segment of the university community. Indeed, Fordham's 2005 mission statement, in relevant part, provides that:

"Fordham strives for excellence in research and teaching, and guarantees the freedom of inquiry required by rigorous thinking and the quest for truth.

"Fordham affirms the value of a core curriculum rooted in the liberal arts and sciences. The University seeks to foster in all its students life-long habits of careful observation, critical thinking, creativity, moral reflection and articulate expression. "In order to prepare citizens for an increasingly multicultural and multinational society, Fordham seeks to develop in its students an understanding of and reverence for cultures and ways of life other than their own."

In other words, the consideration and discussion of differing views is actually part of Fordham's mission, regardless of whether that consideration and discussion might discomfit some and polarize others.

In his determination, Dean Eldredge does not provide a rational basis for concluding that SJP might encourage violence, disruption of the university, suppression of speech, or any sort of discrimination against any member of the Fordham community based on religion, race, sex, or ethnicity. His only articulated concern was that SJP singled out one particular country for criticism and boycott. Again, this is not an established ground for denying recognition to a student club. To the extent that Dean Eldredge claims authority to reject any club that criticizes a particular country, that same rule could be applied to students protesting or criticizing China's occupation and annexation of Tibet, Russia's occupation of the Crimea, or Iraq's one-time occupation of Kuwait.

Since there is nothing in the record of Dean Eldredge's determination supporting his authority to reject an application of a student club because it criticized the policies of only one nation, the determination must be annulled as arbitrary and capricious. Even if he had such authority, there is nothing in the record of his determination requiring Fordham to apply such a rule consistently. Therefore, it must be concluded that his disapproval of SJP was made in large part because the subject of SJP's criticism is the State of Israel, rather than some other nation, in spite of the fact that SJP advocates only legal, nonviolent tactics aimed at changing Israel's policies. This also renders his determination arbitrary and capricious, since the defense of a particular nation is not a factor countenanced by Fordham's rules, regulations, and guidelines for the approval of student clubs….

In light of the foregoing, it is … ORDERED and ADJUDGED that … the determination of Dean Keith Eldredge dated December 22, 2016, disapproving the application of Students For Justice in Palestine at Fordham University to be recognized as a student club is annulled, and Fordham University is directed to recognize Students For Justice in Palestine at Fordham University as a university-sanctioned club in accordance with the approval of the United Student Government Executive Board and Senate dated November 17, 2016 ….

Not that, if this was at a public university, the First Amendment would certainly ban the Dean from rejecting a student group on the grounds that it's "polarizing"; at a private university, the matter is one of contract and of the state law of nonprofit organizations.