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Arizona State University violated students’ free speech, lawsuit claims

(Facebook Photo/Arizona State University)

PHOENIX — An Arizona university was recently sued for allegedly violating Muslim students’ free speech and equal protection rights by enforcing a ban on speakers who engage in or advocate for boycotts of Israel.

Arizona State University, the Arizona Board of Regents and Arizona Attorney General are the subjects of a federal lawsuit filed on behalf of American Muslims for Palestine and its founder, Hatem Bazian. The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court of Arizona on March 1 by the Council on American–Islamic Relations.

The lawsuit stemmed from the university’s Muslim Students Association inviting American Muslims for Palestine and Bazian to speak at an on-campus, educational event “regarding Palestinian perspectives on Middle East conflict” next month.

Arizona passed an statute in 2016 that bars the state from “entering into government contracts with companies or persons who engage in or advocate for economic boycotts of Israel.” This act also forced the university to amend its standard outside speaker contract to contain a “No Boycott of Israel” clause.

The lawsuit claimed that American Muslims for Palestine and Bazian could not agree to that clause, therefore they were “barred” from presenting at the campus event “solely because they engage in and advocate for economic boycotts of Israel as a means to promote Palestinians’ human rights.”

The lawsuit argued that the state statute and university clause are “facially unconstitutional under the First Amendment and cannot be enforced against anyone by the Arizona attorney general.”

Both the statute and clause “constitute viewpoint discrimination because they only bar speech and expression against Israel, and not speech or expression in favor of Israel or against Palestine,” the lawsuit argued.

The statute and clause also constitute content- and speaker-specific restrictions on speech, because they “single out boycotts of Israel for disfavored treatment” and “single out government contractors who advocate for Palestine and against Israel as specific speakers who warrant disfavored treatment,” it continued.

The American Muslims for Palestine and Bazian are seeking for the court to declare the state statute “unconstitutional and unenforceable,” grant them an injunction to strike the university clause from its contract and allow them to participate in the Muslim Students Association’s event next month and award them “reasonable costs and attorney’s fees.”

Imraan Siddiqi, the executive director for the Council on American–Islamic Relations’ Arizona chapter, told KTAR News 92.3 FM that it was “unfortunate” that the language in the “unjust law…is showing up in ASU contracts.

“Historically, we looked to universities and institutions of higher learning as beacons of free speech – yet this clearly only applies to certain types of speech, according to the state law and the university’s subsequent adoption of its enforcement,” he added.

Gadeir Abbas, one of the attorneys representing the Council on American–Islamic Relations, told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the group hopes the university will “come to its senses and allow the April 3rd event to go forward without demanding that Professor Bazian and AMP abandon their constitutionally-protected activism as a condition of speaking on campus.”

Raees Mohamed, whose law firm is acting as legal counsel for the council, told KTAR News 92.3 FM that the Arizona Legislature erred by enacting the statute.

“Arizona is targeting specific viewpoints, and in this case, specific speakers engaging in peaceful protest/debate. This is blatant viewpoint discrimination by the state,” Mohamed said.

“The viewpoint discrimination here is particularly egregious, because compliance with the statute means the categorical elimination of boycotts based on a particular ideology. This is a classic offensive against the First Amendment. We are hopeful that the court will see why this statute must be declared unconstitutional.”

But in a statement issued Friday, Arizona State University spokesman Bret Hovell called the situation a “simple misunderstanding” that the university “would have been happy to clear up…before a lawsuit was filed.”

Hovell said the state statute was reflected in the university’s clause, as required for public entities under state law, but the university “does not believe that this law applies to this kind of engagement because the contract was to be with a student group.

“Student groups are not public entities. It was a simple mistake that the ASU form containing the certification was used. The certification was not needed,” the statement read.

The Arizona Board of Regents said it was aware of the lawsuit and hoped the matter could be resolved outside of the courtroom.

On campus and off, free speech must always be safeguarded and protected,” spokeswoman Sarah Harper said in an email. “We welcome any public review or inquiry from those who are concerned about the continued protection of individual rights at our institutions of public higher education, rights protected by the U.S. Constitution.”

The Arizona attorney general’s office declined a request for comment.

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