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Department of Education opens investigation into UNC after antisemitism complaint

20231129_Skvoretz_File-south-building.jpg
Students walk by the South Building, Office of the Chancellor and other administrative offices, on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2023.

The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened a Title VI  investigation for shared ancestry discrimination at UNC on Dec. 22, following a complaint that said the University discriminated against Jewish students.

The federal department will probe whether UNC responded to alleged harassment of students based on shared Jewish ancestry in a manner consistent with the requirements of Title VI.

The inquiry is one of 89 ongoing Title VI investigations the OCR has opened across multiple institutions. 

The complaint that allegedly led to the investigation was filed by Jewish American attorney David Weisberg. The OCR investigation does not mean that the organization made a determination regarding the merit of the complaint. 

In the complaint against the University, Weisberg drew attention to two events that occurred in October and November 2023. The first involves statements made during a roundtable discussion and the other involves a professor's comments during class. Weisberg declined The Daily Tar Heel’s request for comment, deferring to the complaint itself. 

Weisberg argues that the two 2023 events breach a previously reached resolution agreement between UNC and the OCR following 2019 events. 

UNC Media Relations said the University is aware of the complaint and will comply with the federal investigation.

“We will cooperate fully and remain committed to promoting a safe and equitable environment to all members of the Carolina community that is free from harassment and discrimination,” Kevin Best, Media Relations senior director, said in an email.

Under the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Title VI prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.

Theodore Shaw, a law professor at UNC and director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said in order for a Title VI violation to have occurred, students must have been discriminated against and be made to feel uncomfortable by the institution.

Previous resolution agreement

In the complaint, Weisberg pointed to University events he describes as offensive and antisemitic that took place in 2019, including the distribution of flyers in Davis Library and a rap performance at a conference titled “Conflict over Gaza: People, Politics and Possibilities.” 

Following the events in 2019, Kevin Guskiewicz, the interim chancellor at the time, released statements condemning both the flyers and the performance.

The OCR opened an investigation into the University after these events and concluded that no violation of Title VI occurred. Following the events, the University entered a resolution agreement with the OCR to “promptly investigate” any further incidents of antisemitism on campus and take "all steps reasonably designed" to make sure that student are not subjected to a "hostile environment."

“Title VI and the Resolution Agreement again are both plainly violated,” Weisberg said in the complaint. “The fact that the Resolution Agreement was signed more than four years ago indicates that antisemitism at UNC is a persistent problem that in fact has not been resolved.” 

Recent events cited in the complaint

Weisberg quotes several comments about Israel made by assistant professor E. Chebrolu in his Communications 170: Rhetoric and Public Issues class in the complaint.

He specifically points to a remark made by Chebrolu during an Oct. 17 class, when he said, "Israel and the United States do not give a shit about international law or war crimes."

The DTH independently verified the statement after obtaining a recording of the class from a student.

“It is a controversial class in nature, because it can be sensitive topics being talked about,” a student in Chebrolu’s class, who wished to remain anonymous, said. “We were basically analyzing rhetoric being used, whether it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’ rhetoric.”

Weisberg also claims that Chebrolu called Israel “a clearly fascist state committing a genocide under the guise of it supposedly being the only democracy in the Middle East,” during an Oct. 31 lecture. The DTH was unable to independently verify these statements.

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“If you're taking a class that is particularly for public issues, it's going to be sensitive,” the student said. “It's going to be tough, but it has to be talked about and taking that away from us as students —  I feel like that is going to jeopardize how we receive education as well as other students who might take that class.”

Chebrolu declined The DTH's request for comment. He said he was advised by University administration to not speak to the media given the ongoing federal investigation.

The second event Weisberg cites occurred during a roundtable discussion on Nov. 28 titled “No Peace Without Justice: A Round-Table Talk on Social Justice in Palestine." The event was co-sponsored by the UNC Department of Geography and Environment and the UNC Center for Middle East and Islamic Studies. 

At the event, activist and guest speaker Rania Masri discussed the events of Oct. 7, the day militant group Hamas attacked Israel, leading to retaliatory attacks on Gaza by Israel that remain ongoing.

“Oct. 7, for many of us from the region, was a beautiful day,” Masri said according to a YouTube video posted by Voice4Israel of North Carolina. "A day in which we saw our brothers, we saw our fathers, we saw men break out of a concentration camp."

The DTH was unable to reach Masri.

In response to the event, UNC Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz released a statement on Dec. 1 which said he was “appalled” by Masri’s comments, and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences Jim White was reviewing University policy regarding panels and free speech. 

In a letter from the OCR to Weisberg obtained by The News & Observer, attorney Dan Greenspahn said the OCR is a "neutral fact-finder" and will look at information from the complaint, UNC and other sources. The complaint could be resolved before the conclusion of the investigation. If an agreement is not reached in this way, the OCR will propose a formal resolution agreement. 

Shaw said that in general, issues of free speech and hate speech can be difficult to distinguish between.   

Where you draw a line between showing that protection and allowing people to exercise their right to freedom of speech — that's a hard task and I’m going to look with much interest to see what the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights does, trying to figure out how to draw that line,” Shaw said

@JulianHill20795

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