University Class Action Lawsuit Over Fundraiser

The University is facing a possible class-action lawsuit two years after a fundraiser for a flotilla ship against the Israeli blockade of Gaza was not paid out.

Infringing on Freedom of Speech

Chemistry professor Larry Romsted, along with University alumna and part-time lecturer Manijeh Saba, are suing the University for failure to release the funds, adding that by withholding the funds, the University is infringing on their freedom of speech.

Photo by Debra Ellis

The fundraiser’s cause was the “U.S. Boat to Gaza,” a relief effort organized by the group Stand By Justice to help break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza strip by sending supplies, Saba said.

Saba said she teamed up with Romsted and BAKA: Students for Middle Eastern Justice, a former University group two years ago, to host the fundraiser for relief efforts in Gaza. The event was held on Nov. 4, 2010 in the Busch Campus Center, and Saba said about 250 people donated money to the cause.

Rutgers Hillel

The event raised $3,345 for the “U.S. Boat to Gaza” effort, she said.

Members of the Jewish group Rutgers Hillel had opposed the cause and said they did not want the University to be used as a fundraising venue for organizations that violate international law or conduct illegal actions against Israel, according to nj.com.

Some students felt that the flotilla was more of a political statement, rather than actual help for the people in Gaza, said former Hillel Board Israel chair Pam Slifer in November 2010 to The Daily Targum.

But trouble arose when it came time for the University to send out the check.

The University released a statement saying the fundraiser had been approved, but because the “U.S. Boat to Gaza” lacked the proper tax-exempt status to qualify as a charity, BAKA would need to choose a new recipient, said Hoda Mitwally, a University alumna who served as the public relations officer for BAKA in 2010, to the Associated Press.

Mitwally told The AP that BAKA was maligned by organizations that put out press releases insinuating the group was linked to terrorism and attempted to misuse school funds.

Decision, Not Content-Neutral

“On a viewpoint and content-neutral basis as required by applicable federal law, the University is seeking to ensure that any beneficiary of the event proceeds is legally recognized as a bona fide tax exempt entity under U.S. law, and that all proceeds will be used for lawful purposes,” read a 2010 statement from former Vice President for Student Affairs Gregory S. Blimling.

But BAKA announced in June 2011 that the fundraised money was going to the WESPAC Foundation, a 501-c charity, Romsted said.

“The University sent out a check, but then placed a stop on it,” he said.

Romsted said he knows the University is redirecting the money because they stopped the check even after BAKA members said it would go to WESPAC, a West Chester County organization that does peace and justice work.

“We believe the school is violating the free speech rights of the student group, and if they can do it here, they may do it again,” he said.

In a statement Saba sent on Sept. 11, she lists the University President Robert L. Barchi, former University President Richard L. McCormick, the Board of Governors and Board of Trustees as defendants in a pending class-action lawsuit.

John Leschak, Esq., is representing Romsted and Saba as the plaintiffs in the lawsuit. BAKA is not involved in the lawsuit.

“As our complaint alleges, we believe Rutgers violated the free speech right of the plaintiffs and attendees of the fundraiser,” Leschak said. “We believe the evidence will show that the decision making process is not content neutral.”

The plaintiffs are seeking a class-action lawsuit, meaning any of the attendees can become a member of the class.

“We are seeking judgment to declare that what Rutgers did was unconstitutional,” Leschak said. “We want to give the money to the beneficiaries, and we are also seeking damages to compensate for violation of their civil liberties.”

Romsted said Saba and himself are sometimes asked why they are doing this. He said they are standing up to the University for individual rights.

“We are doing it because we don’t believe the University should be violating the free speech rights of the students,” he said. “They are doing that by holding onto the money and redirecting where it goes.”

Romsted said he wants the University to give the money to the people it was intended for.

“We just want the school to say ‘OK, we will give them the money,’” he said.

Committed to Academic Freedom?

University spokesman E.J. Miranda said it is the University’s practice not to comment on pending litigation.

“As an institution of higher education, Rutgers is committed to academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” he said.