LP & Winston File Second Civil Rights Lawsuit Against SFSU in California State Court

SAN FRANCISCO, CA—In a complaint in California State Court, The Lawfare Project and Winston & Strawn LLP allege on behalf of two student plaintiffs that SFSU harmed them in violation of the Unruh Civil Rights Act.

Yesterday, attorneys filed a complaint against San Francisco State University in Superior Court of California for the County of San Francisco, alleging that the school has discriminated against its Jewish student population in violation of their civil rights. This complaint comes on the heels of another lawsuit filed in federal court against SFSU professors and administrators on June 19th of last year for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The state lawsuit brings Plaintiffs’ civil rights claim directly against SFSU and the Board of Trustees of California State University, a distinction from the federal lawsuit which, due to Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity, could only bring constitutional claims against the university’s officers and agents. Thus, it holds SFSU and the California State University system accountable for SFSU’s conduct beyond the individual administrators, faculty and staff whose behavior has violated the Plaintiffs’ protected rights. The state complaint also includes new details describing a campus climate, fomented and facilitated from the President’s office and the highest levels of the administration, in which the unequivocally disparate treatment of Jews leaves them feeling threatened, intimidated and alienated when they attempt to participate in normal campus life.

“The atmosphere on campus is beyond difficult or upsetting, it has evolved into something frightening and ugly,” said student plaintiff Liam Kern, an SFSU junior active in Hillel. “I hope that this case not only legitimizes the concerns of my friends and peers at SFSU, but also inspires other students who have been excluded or silenced to reclaim their own voices, and take action to protect their civil rights.”

“San Francisco State University has become a hotbed for hate when it comes to Jewish students, and is sadly recognized as one of the most anti-Semitic campuses in the country. The University has knowingly and systematically fostered discrimination against its Jewish student population and breached its agreements with Jewish students,” said Seth Weisburst at Winston & Strawn LLP.

“The goal of this lawsuit is to hold SFSU responsible for the disturbing civil rights violations of Jewish students alleged and to compel systemic changes that will ensure all students a safe, non-hostile educational environment free from discrimination,” added Larry Hill, a Partner at Winston & Strawn LLP.

Amanda Berman, Director of Legal Affairs at The Lawfare Project, has been investigating SFSU for nearly two years. “Every couple of weeks, another anti-Semitic incident occurred; another Jewish student faced harassment on campus; another openly degrading comment surfaced from a member of the administration; or another student faced recalcitrance when trying to benefit, the same as all other students, from the opportunities and privileges of enrollment at SFSU,” she said. “We will hold the university accountable to the full extent of federal and state law. It is time for profound institutional change. Since the administration and the CSU Board of Trustees have been entirely unwilling to pursue such a goal, Jewish victims of SFSU’s discriminatory conduct have been left with no choice but to ask the courts to compel it.”

The lawsuit comes at a critical time when anti-Semitic hate crimes are on the rise across the country. According to a recent ADL report, anti-Semitic attacks rose 67% from 2016 to 2017, with much of the increase constituted by incidents of harassment. “The SFSU administration has failed—time and again—to address the systematic violations of Jewish students’ civil rights. This filing sends a clear message that universities are still responsible for the well-being of all, not just some, of their students. There is no excuse for a university which not only allows, but actively foments a hostile environment for any of the young individuals under its protection—no matter their race, religion, national origin, ethnicity, gender, or other protected class,” said Brooke Goldstein, director of The Lawfare Project.

At SFSU, anti-Semitic incidents on campus date back over thirty years. Throughout the 1990s, artwork regularly appeared around campus depicting vicious anti-Semitic imagery, such as an Israeli flag next to a swastika, or posters perpetuating age-old blood libel myths. Hillel—the university’s largest Jewish student group—has been the repeated target for anti-Semitic attacks by mobs disrupting peaceful rallies, as in 2002 when a group surrounded the students, shouting, “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and “Get out or we’ll kill you.” Most recently, the university’s President, Leslie Wong, has negated the suggestion that he has an obligation to ensure the physical safety and equal academic opportunity of Jewish students on campus, even suggesting that the “physical safety of Jewish students on campus” is only a “political issue.”

A copy of the complaint can be found here.


Amanda Berman
Director of Legal Affairs, The Lawfare Project
(212) 339-6995