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Lawsuit accuses Northwestern University of enabling harassment at pro-Palestinian encampment

Students sue Northwestern over pro-Palestinian protests
Students sue Northwestern over pro-Palestinian protests 00:29

CHICAGO (CBS) -- Three Northwestern University students filed a lawsuit Wednesday accusing Northwestern University of enabling the harassment of Jewish students when a pro-Palestinian tent encampment was set up on campus recently.

CBS Chicago was awaiting a response lawsuit from Northwestern Wednesday evening.  

The encampment was erected Thursday morning on Deering Meadow on the Evanston campus of the university—in one of many protest efforts on college campuses around the country over the past couple of weeks. The tents came down on Tuesday, a day after an agreement between the protesters and the university was announced.

The pro-Palestinian protesters called for the university to divest from its interests in Israel—echoing protests at many universities around the country.

But in a lawsuit filed in the Chancery Division of Cook County Circuit Court, three Northwestern students—identified in the suit only as Jane Joe, John Doe 1 and John Doe 2—claimed they were subjected to antisemitic harassment at Northwestern during the protest.

They called the encampment, or the "Liberated Zone," "a dystopic cesspool of hate in the 2 school's lush green center," and accused Northwestern of coddling the protest.

The lawsuit alleged participants in the protest were seen "openly glorifying" Hamas—specifically pointing to one person they said "roamed freely through the encampment" and "barked at passersby demanding they state whether they speak Hebrew."

The lawsuit also said the encampment also featured signs that depicted Northwestern University President Michael Schill—who is Jewish—as a "bloodthirsty devil."

Much Shelist P.C.

The plaintiffs further took issue with demonstrators chanting and making signs that read, "From the river to the sea."

The Anti-Defamation League and other Jewish groups have criticized the phrase "from the river to the sea"—the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, which the entirety of Israel lies between—as a chant as a call to dismantle the state of Israel. Many Palestinian activists say they are not calling for the destruction of Israel, but for freedom of movement and equal rights and protections for Palestinians throughout the land.

The plaintiffs called the expression, "a genocidal slogan that calls for the elimination of the State of Israel (and, with it, the cleansing or subjugation of its millions of Jewish inhabitants)."

The lawsuit also pointed to a sign showing a Star of David with a circle and line over it.

Much Shelist P.C.

The suit said Schill acknowledged that Jewish students were feeling threatened and unsafe—linking to a YouTube video message from Schill addressing the agreement that ended the encampment.

In the video address, Schill said, "I recognize that some slogans and expressions are subject to interpretation, but when I see a Star of David with an X on it, when I see a picture of me with horns, or when I hear that one of our students has been called a 'dirty Jew,' there is no ambiguity. This needs to be condemned by all of us, and that starts with me."

Schill also said in the video that members of the Northwestern community who "feel strongly about what is happening in Gaza" must also be permitted to express their views peacefully, and said anti-Muslim rhetoric is also unacceptable and will not be tolerated.

The plaintiffs in the lawsuit claimed that the encampment, which Northwestern said from the beginning was in violation of school policies, was allowed to remain.

"Rather than enforce its express and implied promises to Plaintiffs that Northwestern is a place of civility where free expression is governed by transparent, content-neutral codes of conduct, Northwestern twisted itself into a pretzel to accommodate the hostile and discriminatory encampment, legislate around it, and ultimately reward it," the lawsuit alleged.

Students claim they personally felt unsafe around encampment

In the lawsuit, plaintiff Jane Doe was identified in the suit as a grad student at Northwestern, John Doe 1 as a first-year undergrad, and John Doe 2 as a grad student at the Kellogg School of Management. All three students are Jewish, the lawsuit said.

Among other allegations, the lawsuit claimed Jane Doe was walking with a friend near the encampment when a protester wearing a surgical mask and a keffiyeh hit her friend with a protest sign. She also alleged protesters screamed at her to "burn in hell" the next day.

The lawsuit alleged John Doe 1 heard hateful expressions when walking with his mother near the encampment, and alleged he had previously been told on the Northwestern campus that Jewish students "should go back to Europe, to Poland!"

The lawsuit alleged that his friend group was harassed by a demonstrator at the encampment, and he later learned his picture was taken and published "in a derogatory and harassing online post."

All three students were left feeling unsafe on campus, and John Doe 2 is considering transferring out of Kellogg next year—while also planning to "counsel prospective Jewish students to go elsewhere," the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accuses Northwestern of breach of contract for allowing the encampment in violation of university rules.

"Northwestern failed to provide a safe campus environment governed by its own rules and therefore breached its contractual obligations," the lawsuit said.

The suit seeks class-action status, and requests injunctive and other equitable relief. It was filed by Wednesday afternoon by attorney Steven Blonder of the firm Much Shelist P.C.

"When students choose to attend Northwestern University, they expect the school to fulfill its promise to govern everyone by the same transparent, content-neutral code of conduct," Blonder, principal at Much Shelist, said in a news release. "In exchange for paying tuition, students expect the school will uphold its commitment to ensure they are free to safely move about campus. Northwestern has failed its Jewish students on both accounts."

Northwestern tent encampment came down this week

Under an agreement announced Monday by Schill, Provost Kathleen Hagerty, and Vice President for Student Affairs Susan Davis, the protests on Deering Meadow will be allowed to continue through the end of spring quarter classes on June 1. However, only one aid tent was to remain mounted, and the others must all be taken down.

The tents did come down the following day.

One of the key demands from protesters is that the university, "Divest from corporations that profit from Israel's occupation in Palestine."

On the issue of that demand for divestment, the university said it will provide a "a conduit to engagement with the Investment Committee of the Board of Trustees" by reestablishing an Advisory Committee on Investment Responsibility" in the fall. It will include students, faculty, and staff.

The university will also answer any questions from the campus community about specific holdings.

Further, the university said it will support visiting Palestinian faculty and students at risk—providing funding two faculty members for two years, and the full cost of attendance for five Palestinian undergrads. The university will also provide a new temporary space for Muslim students and students of Middle Eastern and North African descent, while renovating a house for that purpose within two years.

Other pro-Palestinian protests continue around Chicago area, the country

Tent encampments were also set up this week on the Hyde Park campus of the University of Chicago, and at DePaul University in Lincoln Park.

Meanwhile, a protest came to a head at Columbia University in New York on Tuesday night, when the university called in the NYPD and cleared protesters from campus nearly two weeks after a pro-Palestinian encampment went up on the school's main lawn.

New York City Mayor Eric Adams said approximately 300 people were arrested when police responded to protests at Columbia and nearby City College of New York. The NYPD's latest count has 282 total arrests, with 109 at Columbia and 173 at City College. It's unclear how many of the arrests were students. 

Columbia President Dr. Minouche Shafik called police to campus after two weeks of talks with protesters. Officers arrested dozens of people, who the university said had occupied Hamilton Hall on campus.

At UCLA in Los Angeles, classes were canceled Wednesday after violence erupted between pro-Palestinian protesters and counterprotesters.

Video from the scene showed counter-protesters storming the barricades of a pro-Palestinian encampment Tuesday night, with people jumping on the barricades set up and hitting people with sticks. 

Fireworks were seen being thrown over into the encampment as protesters tore away parts of the wooden barricades surrounding the pro-Palestinian group. Pepper spray was also reportedly deployed, although it was unclear by what group. One man in his mid-20s was taken to the hospital for a head injury around 11:30 p.m. in an unknown condition, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department.

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