African-American Student Accused of 'Bias Incident' by St. Louis University for Condemning Israeli Human Rights Abuses
On April 4, after sitting through a two-hour presentation at St. Louis University about the state of Israel’s humanitarian gifts to the world, portraying the country as a global savior and ignoring its military occupation of Palestine, a sophomore named Christopher Winston rose from the crowd with a series of questions.
Challenging the presenters, who represented the school’s Jewish Student Association, Winston raised the fact that the Palestinian Red Crescent had declared a state of emergency in response to routine Israeli military attacks on its ambulances and harassment of its personnel. In a videotaped exchange, Winston can be seen arguing politely with a presenter, who invoked the threat of “terrorist” Hamas before declaring, “If you would like to discuss this further, as I said, this is not the event for that.”
The argument continued after the formal Q&A session ended, prompting one pro-Israel organizer to threaten to summon campus police to remove Winston, the only African American at the event. (Jewish Student Association members did not threaten to call security on a white student, Joel Milburn, who criticized Israel’s human rights record during the event.)
“Thank you, your Zionist fascism is on full display today,” Winston replied, according to an account he supplied to AlterNet.
A week after the episode, Winston received a letter from St. Louis University’s Department of Student Responsibility and Community Standards informing him that two members of the Jewish Student Association, Scott Lasky and David Weinstein, had filed a complaint against him. Winston was slapped with a “no contact order”—the school’s equivalent of a restraining order—alleging that Lasky and Weinstein were “concerned for their health, safety and well-being.”
“Inappropriate behavior that one might perceive as retaliatory by anyone including friends and family will not be tolerated,” the letter read. “If you find yourself inadvertently in the presence of Mr. Lasky or Mr. Weinstein, you need to avoid any contact with them and civility is expected.” Both Lasky and Weinstein were given reciprocal orders.
Winston’s trials did not end there. On May 11, he was informed that the campus Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) had found him guilty of involvement in a “bias related incident.” The finding suggested that St. Louis University administrators interpreted Winston’s anti-Zionist commentary and criticism of Israeli human rights abuses as antisemitic hate speech. The school also accused Winston of violating its policy against “disruptive behavior.”
The stern punishment campus administration meted out to Winston stood in stark contrast to the slap on the wrist it delivered to members of St. Louis University’s baseball team who had unleashed a torrent of racist, anti-black rants against President Obama. On a group chat board, the baseball players referred to Obama as a “F**king watermelon eatin baboon” and lamented that “they got a colored running the country.” Team members retaliated against the student who exposed the messages, spitting chewing tobacco outside his room. Rather than subjecting the players to immediate punishment, the university president’s special assistant for diversity and inclusion called for “a restorative justice process,” sparking outrage from African-American students.
St. Louis University spokespeople Clayton Berry provided AlterNet with a boilerplate statement on Winston's case: "Without commenting on specific cases, the University can say unequivocally that it stands not only against racism, but against all forms of discrimination based on race, gender, sex, religion, ability, national origin and veteran status. The University stands just as firmly on its commitment to free and civil discourse and the exchange of ideas and opinions its campus."
St. Louis University is a private institution that is not bound by the First Amendment, giving it unlimited latitude to discipline students for violating the speech codes enshrined in its code of conduct.
The Palestine Legal Center, an independent organization that defends the legal rights of Palestine solidarity activists to organize in the United States, issued a letter to St. Louis University president Fred Pestello, demanding the school rescind its findings against Winston. The letter declared that “by punishing Mr. Winston for expressing his viewpoints in a manner entirely consistent with the forum, [St. Louis University] has sent a message that certain political viewpoints are not welcome on campus and that free speech principles do not apply equally to all students.”
Winston told AlterNet he was convinced that “the handling of this case proceeded from the assumption that I am antisemitic.” He added, “I believe that the university has abused me because of my political identity and race. I strongly disagree with the disciplinary handling of this case, and do believe that there is a double standard for supporters of Palestinian rights.”
Despite his censure for speaking out against Israeli human rights abuses, Winston says he is undeterred. “I will continue to work to build and aid the Palestine solidarity struggle and continue to remain a firm supporter of the right of the people of Palestine to exist and realize national liberation,” he vowed.