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Lawsuit accuses Columbia of singling out 2 pro-Palestinian groups by suspending them after protest

NEW YORK (AP) — Columbia University is being sued by the New York Civil Liberties Union over the school's decision last fall to suspend two student groups that protested Israel’s conduct in the Gaza war.

The lawsuit announced Tuesday accuses the Ivy League school of violating its own rules by suspending the groups, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace, a day after their Nov. 9 campus protest sponsored by more than 20 groups. The next day, the two groups were suspended for allegedly violating university policy and were given no opportunity to respond to the charges or contest them, the lawsuit says.

That protest came in the heated weeks after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks that sparked the war and Israel's subsequent ground invasion of Gaza, when demonstrations were organized by both pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students at Columbia and other U.S. campuses. Students on both sides complained of harassment and bias incidents.

Columbia had said in a statement that the Nov. 9 demonstration “included threatening rhetoric and intimidation.” The two groups' suspension, which is still in effect, bans them from holding on-campus events or getting school funding. The lawsuit filed by the NYCLU and Palestine Legal, an advocacy organization, seeks to nullify the suspensions “and related relief.”

“Universities should be havens for robust debate, discussion, and learning — not sites of censorship where administrators, donors, and politicians squash political discourse they don’t approve of,” NYCLU executive director Donna Lieberman said in a news release.

Palestine Legal senior staff attorney Radhika Sainath said universities "must abide by their own rules and may not punish student groups speaking out for Palestinian rights in the moment when they are most essential -– even if donors and lobby groups complain.”

A Columbia spokesperson said university officials would decline to comment on pending litigation. The lawsuit says Columbia would lift the suspension if the two groups show sufficient commitment to following school rules and engaging with university officials.

The suit was filed in state court in Manhattan on Monday, the same day that a Republican-led Congressional committee announced a hearing on antisemitism at Columbia.

University President Minouche Shafik and the two co-chairs of Columbia's Board of Trustees are expected to testify at the April 17 hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Columbia officials were asked to testify at the committee's December hearing during which members grilled the presidents of Harvard, M.I.T. and the University of Pennsylvania over reports of antisemitic incidents at their campuses but cited a scheduling conflict.

Both Penn President Liz Magill and Harvard President Claudine Gay resigned following criticism of their testimony before the committee.

Columbia spokesperson Samantha Slater said the university “is committed to combating antisemitism and we welcome the opportunity to discuss our work to protect and support Jewish students and keep our community safe.”