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Anti-Palestinian discrimination investigation opens at UNC following complaint

20231118_TRAN_university-sjp-protest-occupation-8.jpg
A student holds a Palestinian flag outside of South Building during an organized march for Palestine on Friday, Nov. 17, 2023.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights opened a Title VI investigation on May 5 into UNC for discrimination against Palestinian students. The investigation was opened following a complaint filed by Palestine Legal, an independent organization, that outlined incidents of anti-Palestinian discrimination. 

According to a post on the UNC Students for Justice in Palestine Instagram, the complaint was filed on their behalf on April 5 and called for the OCR to investigate whether UNC’s actions violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The act protects individuals from discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin. 

In a press release related to another case on the Palestine Legal website, the organization wrote that the OCR will only open a formal investigation when it determines the facts of a complaint warrant a deeper look.According to their website, the group is "dedicated to protecting the civil and constitutional rights of people in the US who speak out for Palestinian freedom." 

Kevin Best, senior director of Media Relations, said in an email that the University was aware that the complaint had been filed on behalf of Palestinian students, providing the same statement as in a May 21 email to The DTH about the investigation.

“​​We will cooperate fully with any requests for information from OCR and remain committed to promoting a safe and equitable environment to all members of the Carolina community that is free from harassment and discrimination,” Best wrote.  

Discrimination cited in the complaint

Zoha Khalili, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal and signatory of the complaint, wrote about three instances of alleged discrimination in the complaint. 

The first complaint outlined by Khalili said that UNC provided resources to Israeli, but not Palestinian, students.

On Oct. 10, the Dean of Students office sent an email to students whose birthplaces were listed as in or around Israel to offer academic or personal support due to the violence in the region, according to an exhibit in the complaint. Khalili wrote that several Palestinian students who Palestine Legal spoke with received this email because their birthplace was listed as Israel, while others did not. 

When The Daily Tar Heel asked Media Relations for a copy of the email and clarification regarding the parameters of “in or around Israel," as well as about the impact of the investigation on the UNC community and its alignment with University goals, Best responded with the same comment as the previous Media Relations response, acknowledging the Title VI investigation and plans to cooperate with the OCR.

According to the complaint, the administration said in an Oct. 17 meeting with student leaders from the Arab Student Organization, Muslim Students Association and SJP that an email had also been sent to Palestinian-affiliated students, although the groups said this was false. On Oct. 18, the Dean of Students office sent an email addressed to ASO members that had the same content as the previous email to Israeli students.

Additionally, the complaint stated that former Chancellor Kevin Guskiewicz and Leah Cox, the vice provost for equity and inclusion and chief diversity officer at the University, met with members of UNC Hillel — a Jewish campus organization — on Oct. 10 to hear the concerns of students and staff. Guskiewicz later sent an email, included in the complaint's exhibits, to Hillel members denouncing antisemitism and stating the priority of campus safety.

On Oct. 13, Guskiewicz sent a University-wide email condemning Hamas' violence against Israel and offering support to community members, recognizing Jewish and Muslim students, faculty and staff. Khalili wrote that this email failed to acknowledge Israel's violence against Palestinians and address Islamophobia or Palestinians by name, while it did address antisemitism and Israel.

“Unlike the university’s rapid response and proactive outreach to hear the concerns of and provide support to Israeli and Jewish students, administrators did not attempt to connect with Palestinian students or other groups associated with Palestinians,” Khalili wrote in the complaint. She said the administration didn't reach out to these individuals until the ASO and MSA requested a meeting. 

The complaint also claimed that UNC administration remained silent following verbal attacks from students and a professor on demonstrators during an SJP rally on Oct. 12., with UNC religious studies professor Evyatar Marienberg shouting, “Nazis,” at pro-Palestine demonstrators. 

A tweet from 2023-24 Editor-in-Chief Emmy Martin shows footage of the Oct. 12 SJP protest where a professor yelled at pro-Palestine protesters.

Khalili wrote that while the incident was reported to UNC’s Equal Opportunity and Compliance Office, all complaints were dismissed.

The third instance of discrimination outlined in the complaint was the University’s alleged acquiescence to UNC Board of Trustees member Marty Kotis’ “racist and anti-democratic demands.”

Following a Nov. 17 sit-in of a South Building waiting area held by SJP and allied groups, Kotis told The Daily Tar Heel that the University should identify specific students who participated in event and sanction them depending on their role and previous history, potentially leading up to expulsion.

Khalili compared this response to a sit-in held in February 2023 related to accessibility at UNC for which there was no police involvement or conduct charges pursued against students. 

“As a university obligated to provide an educational environment welcoming to all regardless of race, color, or national origin, UNC-Chapel Hill cannot justify its failure to address the hostile anti-Palestinian environment students have been subjected to by its own administrators, professors, and police department,” Khalili wrote in the complaint. 

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Proposed remedies

Within the complaint, Khalili called for the OCR to review and establish ongoing monitoring of the actions UNC takes in response to complaints of discrimination against Palestinian students. She also wrote that the University should end investigations against Palestinian students and their allies advocating for equal treatment and apologize for its actions in a public statement. 

In an April 8 Instagram post announcing the complaint’s filing, SJP said that the Civil Rights Act would not exist without college activists and community members.

“We have clearly shown that the University has continued its long, shameful history of de facto racism,” the group wrote. “Not only has UNC limited free speech for Palestinian students and their allies, but it has also attempted to render them invisible on campus.”

In an email to The DTH, Khalili said that Palestine Legal has filed eight Title VI complaints in the last two months against universities for anti-Palestinian discrimination, with four resulting in OCR investigations, as the others remain pending.

An investigation into the discrimination of Jewish students at the University is also currently being conducted by the OCR.

"The university is not allowed to silence its students just because it disagrees with their message," Khalili said to The DTH in an email.

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com