The University of Michigan moved to quell an international uproar last week sparked by a controversial campaign to boycott Israel. School administrators sanctioned recently tenured professor John Cheney-Lippold after he refused to write a recommendation letter for a student who wanted to spend a semester studying in Tel Aviv. Cheney-Lippold cited his own participation in the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, a pro-Palestinian campaign to boycott Israel, as justification for the denial. Amid the uproar over the Cheney-Lippold incident, another student reported a similar denial from a graduate student assistant. In a letter chastising Cheney-Lippold, university administrators warned they would not tolerate similar refusals in the future: “You are not to use student requests for recommendations as a platform to discuss your personal political beliefs.”
The controversy brought the university plenty of unwanted attention: 60 Jewish or pro-Israel groups urged the school to fire Cheney-Lippold. Several also suggested the U.S. Department of Education should investigate, which could create a much bigger problem for the university. Kenneth Marcus, who heads the department’s Office of Civil Rights, views the BDS movement as anti-Semitic discrimination. Supporters of the BDS movement call it a civil rights issue.
Cheney-Lippold’s case could take that argument to the U.S. Supreme Court. A pro-Palestinian lawyer representing the professor suggests the university violated his free speech rights by compelling him to support something he disagrees with. —L.J.