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Rice SJP hosts ‘people’s town hall’ after admin orders tabling of BDS resolution

After an hour-long Senate session last week when S.RES 02 was introduced, the April 1 Senate, pictured, had no agenda, did not reach a quorum and quickly adjourned. Prayag Gordy / Thresher

By Prayag Gordy     4/2/24 11:11pm

Rice Students for Justice in Palestine hosted a “people’s town hall” in response to Rice’s order for the Student Association to table a resolution divesting student activity fee funds from companies on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions list.

The town hall took place following the April 1 Senate meeting in Fondren Library’s Kyle Morrow Room — exactly where the Student Association Senate meets.

“Arrive for Senate at 9 p.m. when we were supposed to hold a vote,” Rice SJP announced in an Instagram post a few days prior to the town hall, “and stay after as we build solidarity and share experiences of targeted harassment or suppression.”

After an hour-long Senate session last week, when S.RES 02 — titled “Student Association Boycott and Divestment from Corporations Complicit in the Ongoing Genocide in Gaza” — was introduced, the April 1 Senate had no agenda, did not reach a quorum and quickly adjourned.

S.RES 02 called for the Student Association to prohibit student activity fee money, officially known as Blanket Tax funds, from being spent at target companies of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement such as Intel, Chevron and McDonald’s. BDS says these companies profit “from the genocide of the Palestinian people,” while some Jewish groups say BDS is “one tactic in the long history of campaigns and efforts to delegitimize and isolate the State of Israel.”

Richard Baker, the director of Rice’s Office of Access, Equity and Equal Opportunity, instructed the SA to table the resolution on March 27, after an unnamed student filed a complaint against the resolution’s authors and the SA president under Rice’s anti-discrimination policy. 

The Thresher obtained Baker’s order, which said that the accused students could face disciplinary action under the Code of Student Conduct if they did not “take all necessary steps” to stop a vote on S.RES 02.

“For privacy reasons, Rice does not publicly comment on specific investigations, especially regarding students,” a university spokesperson said in a statement to the Thresher. 

About 30 students attended Rice SJP’s town hall, with discussion spanning the resolution itself, other instances of judicial investigations and fears some students have about participating in Rice SJP events.

“When we heard that this resolution was being tabled, we kind of just felt that it was important to speak to our base and hear the concerns of the people … [and] talk about how we kind of view this as a suppressive tactic,” Matti Haacke, an organizer with Rice SJP, said in an interview after the town hall.

The event began with Haacke and another Rice SJP organizer accusing Rice of a “huge overstep of power” and a “direct violation of free speech” by ordering the SA to table S.RES 02.

The university spokesperson told the Thresher that Rice is not legally bound by the First Amendment but has a “deep respect” for open expression.

“Rice has deep respect for the thoughtful, open and provocative exchange of ideas, opinions, scholarship and arguments that lie at the heart of student and faculty life. Private universities, like other private nonprofits and businesses, are not parts of the government. For that reason, they are not legally required to honor the First Amendment,” the university spokesperson wrote.

“Rice realizes that personal expression and academic freedom are important and conducive to the conversation and learning that occurs on a university campus. Rice strives to honor those expressive principles even as it complies with federal civil rights laws that require it to maintain an environment free from unlawful discrimination,” they continued.

Attendees asked questions about the timeline of Baker’s investigation, which remains unclear. What is apparent, one of the resolution’s sponsors said, is that S.RES 02 will almost certainly not receive a vote before the end of the semester.

The co-sponsor said they have received multiple threats since introducing S.RES 02 last week and requested anonymity due to safety concerns.

As the hour-long town hall came to a close, attendees discussed barriers they have faced when encouraging peers to participate in Rice SJP events. One attendee, who did not share their name when they spoke, said that students are afraid of safety and job-related consequences for publicly advocating pro-Palestinian views.

The Rice SJP organizers said that those fears are valid but inflated. It’s an “extremely successful fear tactic,” said one organizer, who did not introduce themselves.

“If you show up to an SJP meeting, your career isn’t over,” they added.

Another attendee chimed in, saying they made some of their best work connections through pro-Palestinian organizing.

After the town hall, Haacke, a Sid Richardson College junior, said that Rice SJP is charting its next steps.

Right now, he said, “we’re just working on energizing our base.”

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