A boat to free speech


Whether its mode of transit be through the spoken word, text in a newspaper or journal, or an act as simple as donating money to a given cause, free speech and expression is something that we, as Americans, hold pretty close to the heart. And as college students — notoriously liberal in our opinions and belonging to an atmosphere most ideal for voicing and expressing those opinions — this is doubly so. It’s because of this very fact that we find the University’s handling of recent litigation relating to the withholding of fundraising money for a flotilla ship against the Israeli blockade of Gaza two years ago so concerning.

BAKA: Students for Middle Eastern Justice hosted a fundraising event on Nov. 4, 2010 in the Busch Campus Center in an effort to raise relief funds for a flotilla ship headed to the Gaza Strip. Roughly 250 people came out and donated money to the cause, and the event ended up raising $3,345 for the “U.S. Boat to Gaza,” a relief effort organized by the Stand for Justice to provide a blockaded Gaza Strip with supplies. Despite opposition to the cause by other University groups, BAKA’s aim to show support for an issue they felt was important is, and was not at the time, at all uncommon. Their group was simply exercising a freedom of speech and expression to which all students on campus are — and should — be entitled.

Yet problems arose when the University issued a statement explaining, despite approval of the fundraiser itself, BAKA would have to choose a new recipient of the funds because the “U.S. Boat to Gaza” did not qualify as a charity under Internal Revenue Code Section 501(c)(3). Complying with this statement, the group then told the University that the fundraised money would go to the WESPAC Foundation, a recognized 501-c charity.

But BAKA still did not receive a check from the University.

Larry Romsted, a chemistry professor in the department of Biological and Environmental Sciences, and University part-time lecturer Manijeh Saba — both of whom were involved with hosting the fundraiser back in 2010 — are now suing the University. They contend that, by withholding the funds, the University is committing a clear infringement on the group’s freedom of speech.

The issue is a complicated one and is certainly not helped by the fact that the University, because the litigation is pending, has declined to comment on it. In our eyes, it remains unclear as to what prevented the money from reaching its intended destination in the first place. Why, exactly, after verifying that BAKA’s second charity was indeed tax-exempt and bona-fide under U.S. law, the group’s fundraised money still didn’t get there is especially puzzling. While the cause BAKA chose to support was understandably a controversial one, we cannot see how this would — or could, under the tenets of an academic community founded on the “free exchange of ideas in an atmosphere of mutual respect,” as University Spokesman E.J. Miranda put it — have factored into the University’s actions. These are questions that the University community must demand from administrators, and we’re encouraged to find the University’s own faculty members spearheading the effort in bringing the issue to absolution.

A brief statement from the University explaining the circumstances under which the check was stopped would clear much of this confusion up. But in the absence of such a statement, we can only speculate — something we seem to be doing a lot of when it comes to the University and its affairs. As it stands now, the issue looks like a definite case of the University infringing upon the free speech of the members of BAKA — and as such, it deserves the attention of every member of the University community. In the meantime, however, the University should return the money back to its rightful owners: BAKA and its donors.

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