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Federal Case

According to a report by The College Fix, the U.S. Department of Education is now investigating Williams College over charges it violated anti-discrimination law when the College Council refused to approve WIFI, a pro-Israel student group. The complaint against the college was filed by David Bernstein, a law professor at George Mason University, on May 2, 2019.

Williams College under federal investigation for discriminating against Jewish students

The full text of Bernstein’s complaint appears after the break. As The College Fix reports:

The College Council voted to deny WIFI recognition as an official student organization during a secretive and controversial meeting April 23.

It was not livestreamed as usual, and speakers were not identified by name in the meeting minutes. An April 9 meeting that was livestreamed had drawn national attention because black student activists went on a profanity-laced rant against white students.

According to The Williams Record, WIFI was the first applicant in more than a decade to be rejected despite meeting all required bylaws.

According to a letter that Bernstein received from the Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in Boston, he retains “a right to file a private suit in federal court whether or not OCR finds a violation.”

David E. Bernstein, 52, is a law professor at the George Mason University School of Law where he has taught since 1995. He focuses on constitutional history and the admissibility of expert testimony. He is a contributor to the influential conservative legal blog, The Volokh Conspiracy. He is a graduate of Yale Law School, where he was a senior editor of the Yale Law Journal. He took a B.A. degree summa cum laude with honors in History from Brandeis University.

May 2, 2019
To Whom it May Concern:
I am writing to file a complaint against Williams College for discrimination against Jewish students in violation of Title VI and related Department of Education regulations. My allegations, supported by an account in the Williams College student newspaper, available here, https://williamsrecord.com/2019/05/cc-rejects-williams-initiative-for-israel/ are as follows:
  1. Williams College is an institution of higher education that receives federal funds, and is subject to Title VI.
  2. Williams College has a student government known as the College Council (hereinafter, CC).
  3. As an official arm of the college, actions by the CC are covered by Title VI.
  4. The CC has an official process by which to recognize new student groups as official registered student organizations, or RSO.
  5. In spring 2019 Jewish students at Williams sought official recognition as an RSO by the CC of a group called Williams Initiative for Israel. The stated mission of the group “is to support Israel and the pro-Israel campus community, as well as to educate the College on issues concerning Israel and the Middle East.” The club also planned to hold events, including Jewish cultural events and celebrations of Jewish and Israeli holidays.
  6. Williams Initiative for Israel complied with all CC bylaws for recognition as an RSO.
  7. No student organization that had applied for recognition as an RSO and complied with all CC bylaws for recognition had failed to gain RSO status in over a decade.
  8. The CC recognizes a student group known as Students for Justice in Palestine. The mission of this group is to advocate for the Palestinian cause. It does so primarily by criticizing Israel. Thus, the CC has no policy, formal or informal, against recognizing student groups that take positions on foreign affairs in general, on the Middle East specifically, or on matters related to Israel or the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
  9. In the courses of debate over recognizing Williams Initiative for Israel, opponents of recognition accused Israel of “genocide,” a charge so facially absurd and contrary to facts that it can only be explained by antisemitism, and is resonant of historical blood libel. It also constitutes antisemitic demonization of Israel, within the internationally accepted definition of antisemitism. Students affiliated with Williams Initiative for Israel suggest an antisemitic undertone other comments made by students opposed to recognition of their organization.
  10. Williams CC voted on April 23, 2019 13-8 with one abstention against recognizing Williams Initiative for Israel.
  11. Contrary to usual practice, CC did not to publish a livestream for the April 23 meeting and published meeting minutes without any speaker names in a document accessible only to students and faculty with Williams email.
  12. 92% of American Jews support Israel, and support for Israel is a bedrock platform of mainstream Jewish organizations, including Hillel that serves Jewish students. Discriminating against a student group organized by Jewish students for the purpose of supporting Israel constitutes discrimination against Jewish students on the basis of ethnicity or race. The antisemitic statements made in the course of the debate, as well as the unusual procedures undertaken, provide evidence of anti-Jewish motive.
  13. Refusal to recognize Williams Initiative for Israel as a recognized student organization on the same terms as the CC has recognized dozens of other student groups constituted discrimination against Jewish students at Williams on the basis of ethnicity or race. The continued non-recognition of Williams Initiative for Israel constitutes ongoing discrimination against Jewish students on the basis of ethnicity or race.
  14. I request that the Office of Civil Rights investigate Williams for discrimination against Jewish students on the basis of the above facts.
David Bernstein
3301 Fairfax Drive
Arlington, VA 22201
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Comments Disabled To "Federal Case"

#1 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On June 4, 2019 @ 9:36 am

The Williams administration initially played down the College Council’s rejection of WIFI, saying the club could obtain “most” of the benefits of recognition without approval. President Maud Mandel retroactively revised her statement several days later to say it could get “all” the benefits.

I am still curious about the backstory to this change, both how/why it was made and who/how it was caught.

#2 Comment By 0xEph On June 4, 2019 @ 11:12 am

First, this is not (yet) a federal case.

Second, I’d be curious if anyone with actual knowledge of this could speak to whether OCR always investigates complaints. My guess is that an investigation letter like this is pro forma.

Third, I know David Bernstein. He’s a good guy and very smart, but he is also more politically motivated than your average professor (and is politically conservative in case that wasn’t clear). He also has no connection to Williams. It shows in his complaint, which is weak or misinformed in a number of respects. For example, CC is not an “official arm” of Williams College — or at least it is not so clearly an official arm that it is good lawyering for David to state it as fact.

All in all, this is a much less big of a deal than what the post implies. It could certainly become a big (or at least bigger) deal if the OCR takes this further. Regardless, given that the unambiguously “official” office of the Present took swift and decisive and extraordinary steps to ensure that the student-run CC’s decision did not prejudice WIFI, this issue is a clear loser as a legal matter.

#3 Comment By Current Student On June 4, 2019 @ 5:03 pm

“opponents of recognition accused Israel of “genocide,” a charge so facially absurd and contrary to facts that it can only be explained by antisemitism”

While Bernstein’s efforts appear to be in good faith, and while the statements made by opponents of WIFI’s recognition were perhaps extreme, the extrapolation at play here is a massive, massive stretch.

I say this as a Jewish student; I say this as someone who believes fully that WIFI should have been approved; I say this as someone who knows personally some of the people involved in the anti-WIFI campaign.

Anybody who thinks that WIFI was denied because of antisemitism is out of touch with the campus climate and with the nature of the issue. To be opposed to Israel is not to be an antisemite. That’s the crucial point here, and Bernstein is way too far removed to make a fair judgement on the dispositions of the people involved.

#4 Comment By John Drew On June 4, 2019 @ 5:07 pm

– OxEph

As I recall, your original opinion on the WIFI matter was that the college should throw the College Council under the bus and simply claim that it was not legally part of the college. What?!

I don’t think any prudent person believes your recommendation was the right way to go. Maud took action on this issue and sought to protect the college’s access to federal funding by taking responsibility for the decision and making dramatic changes to reverse it.

Your current opinion looks just as foolish. You seem to be saying an investigation by the Civil Rights Office is no big deal and that the college might safely pay little and/or no attention to this issue because folks like David Bernstein could not possibly win in court. Reasons?

The truth of the matter is that Williams College broke the law. It doesn’t matter what, if anything, its does after the fact to behave in a more lawful manner. You don’t stop being a murderer simply because you don’t kill anyone new.

Objectively, I think the school can expect the Office of Civil Rights will find it broke the law and it will be punished with appropriate sanctions. I don’t think that it will lose access to federal funding. Nevertheless, I imagine the threat of losing this funding will be used to bring needed changes to the campus.

#5 Comment By John Drew On June 4, 2019 @ 5:31 pm

– Current Student

I think the problem here is that you haven’t absorbed the modern, up-to-date, definition of antisemitism.

For example, the The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) has declared that drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis may be an example of antisemitism.

I don’t think there is any doubt that opponents of WIFI made antisemitic comments at the April 23, 2019 College Council meeting. The parliamentarian has asserted this on video.

Frankly, outside observers are often better informed and more objective than students at Williams. These students maybe too eager to get along and go with the flow when, instead, they should be more courageous in confronting the evil in their midst.

#6 Comment By 0xEph On June 4, 2019 @ 6:39 pm

As I recall, your original opinion on the WIFI matter was that the college should throw the College Council under the bus and simply claim that it was not legally part of the college. What?!

You do not recall correctly.

Maud took action on this issue and sought to protect the college’s access to federal funding by taking responsibility for the decision and making dramatic changes to reverse it.

You’re really good at conclusory statements. Protip: reasons help for arguments. Stating a conclusion as if it were true does not make it true.

The truth of the matter is that Williams College broke the law. It doesn’t matter what, if anything, its does after the fact to behave in a more lawful manner. You don’t stop being a murderer simply because you don’t kill anyone new.

Hey! Look! Lay legal advice framed, again, as unsupported conclusions! Also, you’re wrong!

Objectively, I think the school can expect the Office of Civil Rights will find it broke the law and it will be punished with appropriate sanctions.

What makes this statement objective? Or are you just saying “objectively” the same way that bad lawyers say “clearly” — as a signal that your point is anything but objective? Also, what does the applicable law say about appropriate sanctions?

You seem to be saying an investigation by the Civil Rights Office is no big deal and that the college might safely pay little and/or no attention to this issue because folks like David Bernstein could not possibly win in court. Reasons?

I gave a reason (and also stated my opinion more precisely than you’ve framed it). Where are your reasons?

#7 Comment By John Drew On June 4, 2019 @ 8:15 pm

OxEph – Frequently wrong, NEVER in doubt.

I think you are missing the unsustainablity of the current two-track pathway for granting RSO status. If the College Council makes more illegal, discriminatory decisions, then Maud will spend much of her presidential tenure chasing down and responding to Title VI violations. The simplest course is to just get the students out of this process.

The students, many who are teenagers at best, can’t be trusted to handle these issues in conformity with federal law. After all, the College Council has proven itself to be inept at it in just about every way possible. They don’t follow their own bylaws, they don’t follow their own internal procedures, they don’t follow parliamentary rules. Jeff Robbins at the Boston Herald said it best.

Under President Barack Obama, the U.S. State Department had promulgated definitions of anti-Semitism that included “the delegitimization of Israel,” including “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist.” The Obama administration joined 30 other nations in issuing the Stockholm Declaration, which included within the definition of anti-Semitism, “claiming that the existence of the State of Israel is a racist endeavor.” The Williams College community, so pleased with a self-image of opposing racism, had, through its College Council, not only practiced anti-Semitism but endorsed it.

“In blocking pro-Israel students from having their own voice on campus,” wrote Jeff Robbins, “the Williams College Council has conducted itself more like the Junior Fascist League than the progressives they ardently believe themselves to be.”