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Education Department Wades Into Rutgers Case Involving Critics Of Israel


The war over what is protected speech has been raging on college campuses. And the Trump administration is now jumping into the fray. The Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos, has decided to look into a case at Rutgers University. Here are the CliffsNotes. A pro-Palestinian group on the campus sponsored an event seven years ago where they allegedly only charged Jewish students and supporters of the Israeli government who were protesting the event for entry. A Jewish group filed the complaint against Rutgers, claiming religious discrimination. The case was dismissed until now. Michelle Hackman of The Wall Street Journal, who's covering the story, explains.

MICHELLE HACKMAN: The case was reopened because, under the Obama administration, the Education Department technically doesn't have the authority to adjudicate religious discrimination at schools. So even if there's a blatant example of religious discrimination, the Department of Education just can't do anything. It has to go to the Justice Department.

Now the Trump administration is trying something kind of new. They're saying, we don't have the authority to adjudicate cases of religious discrimination, but we do have authority to say there's a problem with ethnic discrimination here. And so they're saying Jews are an ethnic group, as well as a religious group. And so if they're being discriminated against, we have a way to fight against it.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: At the center of this is a man called Ken Marcus. Tell us who he is.

HACKMAN: So Ken Marcus is the newly confirmed head of civil rights enforcement at the Education Department. He has a long history of being an advocate against anti-Semitism. He started this organization called the Brandeis Center for Civil and Human Rights, which is really famous for advocating that schools punish students who start BDS movements - that's the boycott, divest from and sanction Israel movements. And it's a movement basically saying, you know, the Israeli government should not be occupying Palestinian territory. And therefore we should be boycotting products from the Israeli government.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so what role has he played in this?

HACKMAN: So he has long argued that the Education Department should take the BDS movement as a more serious case of anti-Semitism, that students that are advocating against Israel are also creating a hostile environment for Jewish students on college campuses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What is the wider context here? Because conservative groups have long made the cause of free speech on campus an issue. They say universities are liberal. They suppress conservative speech.

HACKMAN: I think it's actually really interesting because this case is really splitting conservatives. You know, on the one hand the BDS movement is a free speech case. And I think a lot of Republicans would argue that people have the right to say what they believe about a foreign government's policies. Now there's another wing of the Republican Party and particularly the Trump administration that's really trying to champion religious freedom as the civil rights cause. And I think that that's what we're seeing here - that we're seeing Jews being discriminated against. That is one of Ken Marcus' marquee issues. And he wants to be able to elevate that as a cause and sort of argue that this is not just free speech. This is a matter of speech bordering on harassment and discrimination against some students.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Could this set a precedent for other cases like this on other campuses?

HACKMAN: Yeah, so the really interesting thing here is that the specific facts of this case are not great for the students involved. So it does look like a case of discrimination in this particular case. But the Education Department, in deciding to reopen this case against Rutgers University, adopted a very controversial definition of anti-Semitism. And one of the tenets of that definition is that anti-Semitism can be an instance in which people are criticizing the Israeli government. And so I think that has really rankled some people because they're saying, well, that is free speech. That's not discrimination.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Michelle Hackman of The Wall Street Journal, thank you very much.

HACKMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.