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Judge refuses to bar forum at UMass Amherst on Palestinians’ rights

A controversial panel about Palestinian human rights will be allowed to proceed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Saturday, following a judge’s ruling Thursday in Boston.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2014/Globe Staff

A controversial panel forum on human rights in Palestine will be allowed to proceed at the University of Massachusetts Amherst on Saturday, following a judge’s ruling Thursday.

The planned event has sparked controversy on the flagship campus of the state university system since three anonymous Jewish students sued the school, seeking to have it moved off campus.

The students argue the event is anti-Semitic and said the university should not allow it to take place on campus. But in Boston, a Suffolk Superior Court judge, Robert Ullmann, ruled there was no cause to prohibit the speeches before they happen.


“I can’t enjoin a forum just because someone may say something at that forum that fits someone’s definition of anti-Semitism, or racism, or homophobia, or anything else,” the judge said.

The event , set for Saturday evening, was organized and funded by Media Education Foundation, a Northampton group headed by Sut Jhally, a UMass Amherst communications professor.

Four panelists are scheduled to argue that pro-Israel groups have tried to silence Palestinian points of view in the United States.

The event will feature Roger Waters of the rock group Pink Floyd; Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour, cochair of the Women’s March; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor who was fired by CNN for his remarks on Palestine; and David Zirin, a sports editor at The Nation magazine.

It will be moderated by commentator Vijay Prashad.

Karen Hurvitz, the attorney for the Jewish plaintiffs, argued this is not a First Amendment case but a situation in which the University of Massachusetts, a state entity, should not allow discrimination on its campus.

“It’s not a matter of something may happen,” she said. “I think we have to open up our minds to what’s actually going on here. It’s a rally.”

After the court hearing, Hurvitz asked if the university would allow a Ku Klux Klan rally.


The university has said in court and in statements that it will allow the forum to take place on campus because the school is committed to free speech and academic freedom.

Another Jewish group, Jewish Voice for Peace, advocated in court to let the forum proceed. Its attorney, Rachel Weber, said the students bringing the suit are using a definition of anti-Semitism that is not universal.

“To conflate criticism of the Israeli government and criticism of the political movement of Zionism with anti-Semitism is incredibly dangerous,” she said.

The topic of the panel, she noted, is pro-Israel attempts to shut down discussion about Palestinians’ human rights. She said the lawsuit against UMass was an example of just that.

“It proved the point of why this panel needs to happen,” she said.

Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.