Hastings’ board pulls UC brand from rights meeting

UC Hastings College of the Law made a last-minute decision to cancel a speech by its dean and remove its name from a conference it hosted on using the courts to promote Palestinians’ rights after hearing protests from Jewish groups, campus officials said Tuesday.

The conference, titled “Litigating Palestine,” took place at the San Francisco campus March 25 and 26. The 13 speakers – four of them Jewish, according to a school official – discussed legal issues and court cases involving Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, protests, consumer boycotts and related topics.

Approved by faculty

The event, approved by Hastings’ faculty, had listed the school’s foundation as a co-sponsor along with the Trans-Arab Research Institute. But on the evening of March 24, Hastings’ Board of Directors held a closed-door, emergency meeting and announced that a majority had voted to “take all steps necessary to remove the UC Hastings name and brand” from the conference.

The board also dropped plans for a welcoming speech by Frank Wu, the school’s dean and chancellor. Wu issued a statement the next day saying Hastings understands that the topic “prompts strong feeings on all sides,” but believes that convening such gatherings is “among our responsibilities as an academic institution.”

The law school directors, who are appointed by California’s governor, will not comment on the decision, Hastings spokesman Michael Treviño said Tuesday. But he and other officials said some alumni and organizations had complained to the college shortly before the conference.

‘Law as a weapon’

They included the Jewish Community Relations Council, whose executive director, Rabbi Doug Kahn, said in a written briefing for the group’s members last week that the event was “an anti-Israel political organizing conference using law as a weapon.”

Kahn said he and regional leaders of the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee met with Wu and other Hastings officials March 21, told them the conference was one-sided and urged them to withdraw the school’s affiliation and the dean’s planned speech.

The board’s cancellation of Wu’s address “interfered in the academic freedom of our institution,” said the conference organizer, George Bisharat, a Hastings professor.

Bisharat said opponents had wrongly accused the conference of “Israeli-bashing” and were also off base in arguing that the event was biased because none of the speakers supported Israel’s conservative government. The purpose was to train lawyers in defending Palestinian rights, not to debate whether those rights exist, he said.

“If you had a conference on Holocaust reparation cases, you wouldn’t include Holocaust deniers,” Bisharat said. “One of the key premises of the conference was that lawful and peaceful means of resolving disputes ought to be encouraged.”

Basil Plastiras, president of Hastings’ fundraising foundation, which had been listed as co-sponsor, said the school has hosted many conferences on litigating human-rights cases in foreign countries and never found it necessary to include “balancing” comments from representatives of those countries.

The directors’ action dismayed Hastings’ faculty. Nearly all of its tenured professors signed a letter to the board last week saying that academic freedom includes providing forums for controversial topics, and that the attempt to disavow the conference “undermines our commitment to maintaining both the college’s fiscal viability and its high standards.”

E-mail Bob Egelko at begelko@sfchronicle.com.