Coming Up Empty on Title VI

Little Success Applying Civil Rights Law to Anti-Israel Activity

Title VI Dead End: Efforts to use federal civil rights laws against colleges where pro-Palestinian activities have taken place have largely gone nowhere.
joel siegal
Title VI Dead End: Efforts to use federal civil rights laws against colleges where pro-Palestinian activities have taken place have largely gone nowhere.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published March 13, 2012, issue of March 16, 2012.
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According to the complaint, the student’s teacher was aware of the harassment but failed to report it to the school leadership. After the school district learned of the situation, the teacher was placed on administrative leave. In June 2010, that teacher resigned.

In the course of its investigation, the OCR found that the school had responded appropriately to the harassment, committing to reimburse the family for the cost of their son’s psychological evaluation, changing the student’s grade in the world history class and permitting him to try out for the golf team even though he had missed the deadline, among other remedies.

Reached by the Forward, the student’s family declined to speak on the record for this article, saying that to do so would dredge up painful memories of the bullying.

The other cases identified by the Forward involved a junior at Whittier College, in California, whose parents alleged that she was ejected from the basketball team because she is Jewish; siblings at a high school and a middle school in Holliston, Mass., whose father said they were subjected to anti-Semitic remarks, and a Sephardic child at a San Diego elementary school who, according to his mother, was teased because he is Jewish. None of these cases yielded a Title VI violation. In the Whittier College case, however, the school committed to developing a nondiscrimination policy.

According to Theodore M. Shaw, a civil rights expert and former head of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc., harassment cases such as these are typical Title VI fare. But when it comes to investigating claims of anti-Semitism in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the OCR appears to be treading new territory.

“I don’t know if they have an analogue in the historical civil rights cases that were brought on the grounds of race,” Shaw said.

Jewish leaders who advocate using Title VI for Israel-related cases say that their lack of success thus far simply reflects the newness of the law’s application to anti-Semitism.

“It is not just that it is failing. It hasn’t really been tried,” said Ken Marcus, a former staff director at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “I would say that the Title VI campaign is barely in its infancy.” Marcus’s new organization, the Louis D. Brandeis Center, focuses on civil rights and Jewish students. The OCR recently tossed Marcus’s complaint at Barnard.

“While the [OCR] guidance does not use the word ‘Israel’ or ‘Zionism,’ they have given us very, very clear indications that a serious case of harassment or intimidation of pro-Israel students would be covered by their jurisdiction,” added Michael Lieberman, the ADL’s Washington counsel. “With the appropriate case, we expect they would take it and run with it.”

The ADL was one of 13 organizations that banded together in 2010 to ask the OCR to expand its definition of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act to effectively include Jewish students. But since Duncan issued his letter fulfilling their wish, the organized Jewish community has been a picture of discord on the application of Title VI.

Some groups, like the Zionist Organization of America, have been vigorous in their approach to the law, saying it should be used to quell campus anti-Israel activity when it tips, as they see it, into anti-Semitism. Other groups, including the Jewish Council for Public Affairs — the community’s umbrella group for domestic issues — have warned against utilizing Title VI to silence free speech on campus. The David Project, a campus pro-Israel group, came out recently against resorting to Title VI except for extreme cases, part of a refashioning of the group’s previously aggressive approach.

Several more cases may soon emerge. Lauter related that the ADL considers two other universities ripe for complaints, though it has not signed onto a single Title VI case yet.

“We envisioned that this would be an important tool, but not one that was going to be used frequently,” Lauter said. “So the fact that there has not been a ‘successful’ prosecution under Title VI is probably a good sign that things are overall pretty safe for Jewish students on campus today.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com


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