CHICAGO (CBS) — A civil rights complaint filed against the University of Illinois Chicago (UIC) Tuesday accuses the university of discriminating against Palestinian-American students and others who supported Palestine during campus meetings.
Palestine Legal filed the Title VI complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights (OCR). The organization demands a civil rights investigation into what it describes as a pattern of censoring and creating a hostile environment for students of Palestinian heritage and others who voice support for Palestine.
This is the third complaint Palestine Legal filed with the OCR accusing universities of discriminating against Palestinians. Previously, the organization filed complaints about incidents at George Washington University and Florida State University, which prompted the OCR to open investigations in both cases earlier this year, records obtained by CBS 2 show.
According to its website, Palestine Legal provides legal advice, advocacy and training, and litigation support to communities, including college students. The organization represents six Palestinian students and one non-Palestinian Jewish student in the complaint about UIC.
CBS 2 obtained a copy of the complaint, which accuses UIC faculty and staff of creating a hostile student environment on multiple occasions. This includes barring students from attending an informational session about a university-sponsored summer study abroad program in Israel due to their Arab and Palestinian heritage.
“This incident, the university’s further discriminatory actions in its aftermath, and its failure to remedy the discrimination are part of a broader pattern of discrimination against and silencing of Palestinians at UIC,” the complaint said.
The first meeting at the heart of the complaint occurred in January on Zoom. Members of a student organization, Students for Justice in Palestine, said they attempted to join the Zoom to ask questions and express their concerns about the trip.
The complaint said some students opposed the trip, in part, “…because these trips do not provide equal access to Palestinian-American students, who are routinely subjected to invasive interrogations at the Israeli border and can face denial of entry, detention, and deportation because of their Palestinian identity.”
But the complaint said the university staff who hosted the meeting prevented those with “Arab-sounding” names from entering the virtual room. Three students were admitted into the Zoom only after they renamed themselves with non-Arab sounding names. One of those students was Jenin Alharithi.
“The impact this whole situation has had on me as a student – it kind of really made me have an epiphany,” said Alharithi, a senior studying public policy. “I felt super dehumanized as a Palestinian. For the first time in my life, I felt like I wasn’t really being heard or seen.”
Once some of the students were allowed into the informational session after changing their names, they said they waited until the Q&A portion of the meeting to speak, according to the complaint. Some students interested in participating in the trip expressed fear of discrimination and questioned whether they would have equal access in Israel due to previous experiences traveling in the country as Palestinians.
However, the complaint said the students were muted and dismissed by the call hosts. A faculty member told them their comments were “inappropriate” and that he would not respond to questions that were “protesting” the trip.
“This racially charged language not only disregarded the importance of students’ concerns about whether Palestinian students would be allowed to access university programs equally,” the complaint said, “but also portrayed their concern over discriminatory treatment within a university program as aggressive or violent.”
The students also accuse faculty of planning to bar them from the meeting ahead of time, despite the Zoom being open to all students. In November of 2022, two months before the Zoom, the university’s Study Abroad Office posted on Instagram announcing the trip to Israel. After some students shared critical comments on the post, the complaint said faculty and staff were “closely monitoring” the registration ahead of the session.
Palestine Legal cited emails obtained through a public records request, showing faculty discussed plans about denying admission to students who were likely to raise questions about the program.
“We were able to identify that at least a couple of the commenters who have registered for the info. session are UIC students,” the executive director of the Study Abroad Office wrote in an email reviewed by CBS 2. “I believe the plan is for [faculty member] to only admit those students she knows have expressed interest in the program tomorrow.”
Salaam Khater, who graduated this year and was previously the president of Students for Justice in Palestine, said she filed the public records request to understand how faculty discussed the event internally. She said what happened left her and other students feeling anxious, afraid, and disappointed in the university.
“The stress of this whole situation…it’s just unbelievable, and to think it would happen at UIC, a public university with a big Palestinian population, let alone Arab population, it’s just crazy for me to see,” Khater said.
Palestine Legal said the complaint comes after students attempted to remedy the issue by filing internal grievances with the university’s Office for Access and Equity in March. But in July, the complaint says those grievances were dismissed without explanation, and the UIC office found “no actionable allegations under the University Nondiscrimination Police Statement,” a letter from the university said. UIC did not immediately respond to CBS 2’s request for comment on its internal investigation and Palestine Legal’s complaint.
“We went through so many outlets to try to get consequences for what we were going through, and nothing was working,” Alharithi said. “No one was trying to help us.”
The complaint detailed several other incidents, including when a faculty member threatened legal action after the students posted to Instagram about their experiences with the Zoom meeting and criticized university staff. In another incident, police were called after the students posted unapproved flyers on campus about their experiences.
And during an incident in 2021, students said they were ejected from a university Zoom webinar about Israel’s COVID-19 response.
“Several UIC students who attended the webinar – many of whom were Palestinian – were ejected after they asked questions about Israel’s discriminatory treatment of Palestinians,” the complaint said. “Some of the Palestinian students ejected from the event had not asked any questions at all.”
“It is very upsetting and disheartening that UIC not only failed Palestinian students in 2021 but for this to happen again, to be censored again and silenced, and UIC not take any action at all, it’s upsetting. It’s dehumanizing,” Khater said.
The complaint said UIC had a duty under Title VI to support the students and ensure they were not restricted from campus events. Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects people from discrimination based on race or national origin in programs or activities that receive federal funding.
The Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights is responsible for enforcing Title VI by investigating complaints of discrimination. If an investigation finds a violation of Title VI, and the university does not voluntarily comply, the Department of Education could initiate court proceedings to terminate a program’s federal funding.
Palestine Legal makes several demands of the university in its complaint: issue a public statement and apology, end all programs that exclude or disadvantage Palestinian students, improve processes for students reporting incidents of discrimination, and adopt mandatory training across campus on anti-Palestinian and anti-Arab racism.
“These civil rights laws exist to protect students and ensure these institutions are treating them equally and providing the same opportunity regardless of ethnicity or race,” said Zoha Khalili, staff attorney with Palestine Legal. “Were hoping if there is an intervention by the federal government, it would force [UIC] to make its own investigative and accountability procedures more robust, and that it will send a message across the country that Palestinian students have people on their side.”
Palestine Legal also cited afrom UIC itself, which found Arab Americans across Chicagoland experience widespread racism in everyday life. Regarding what the university’s students experienced in the recent incidents, the complaint said, “UIC should have known better and done better.”