Federal complaint alleges hostile environment against Jewish students at UC Berkeley

Kristin J. Bender, The Oakland Tribune
July 12, 2012

Two Jewish UC Berkeley graduates have agreed to drop a lawsuit against the university that claimed Muslim students had subjected them to slurs, threats and assaults, but their attorneys have now filed a federal civil rights complaint against the university.

Attorneys Neal Sher and Joel Siegal filed a complaint Monday with the U.S. Justice Department and U.S. Department of Education against UC Berkeley on behalf of graduates Jessica Felber and Brian Maissy alleging that “Jewish students have been subjected to a pervasive hostile environment and that the university has failed to take effective measure to cure the situation.”

“We filed (the federal complaint) because once the plaintiffs in the lawsuit graduated, we lost the ability to affect changes to correct the hostile environment,” said Sher, adding that the plaintiffs were not pursuing the case to collect money, but rather to correct an “intolerable situation.”

A university official said claims of a hostile environment for Jewish students at UC Berkeley are unfounded.

“The campus takes great pride in its vibrant Hillel chapter, the broad range of other Jewish student groups, our world-class Jewish Studies program, and the recently created Institute for Jewish Law and Israeli Law at the Berkeley law school,” UC Berkeley Dean of Students Jonathan Poullard said in a statement.

In December, U.S. District Judge Richard Seeborg threw out the students’ lawsuit, writing that the pair had failed to prove the harassment violated their constitutional rights and that many of the examples the plaintiffs cited did not involve them. A motion to dismiss the plaintiffs’ attempt to re-establish their claim was pending when the plaintiffs agreed to drop their suit.

“The allegations in the complaint are copied entirely from the lawsuit, the very same lawsuit that a U.S. District Court has already found to have no legal merit,” said campus spokesman Dan Mogulof. “And the same court found that the university had not violated any laws.”

With the dismissal of the March 2011 lawsuit, the university has agreed to consider in the next academic year two minor clarifications to policies that govern campus demonstrations.

UC Berkeley will consider a revision to campus policies that would clarify that mock firearms can’t be displayed in public on campus “unless it would be obvious to a reasonable observer that the imitation weapon is not a real weapon,” and the display is approved by campus police

The plaintiffs allege that two student groups were allowed during a campus function “to carry realistic looking assault weapons which they brandish as they interrogate innocent students on campus about their religious and ethnic backgrounds.”

The other proposed change would clarify that groups who hold functions around Sather Gate allow a clear and unobstructed path for people to walk through. The agreement does not call for the university to make changes, only consider them.