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Confrontation at UC Berkeley Law School Dean's Home Highlights Campus Tensions

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Berkeley Law in Berkeley on April 11, 2024. (Martin do Nascimento/KQED)

A UC Berkeley Muslim law student plans to file a discrimination complaint against the university after accusing a law professor of physically assaulting her as she attempted to protest a dinner event held for graduating students at the home of the law school’s dean.

On Tuesday evening, several dozen law students attended the first of three dinners hosted by Dean Erwin Chemerinsky and his wife, law professor Catherine Fisk, in the backyard garden of the couple’s Oakland home in what was intended to be a celebration of the students’ final weeks of law school.

As captured in a now-viral video of the incident, third-year law student Malak Afaneh, who is Palestinian American, stands before her classmates on the garden steps, wearing a red hijab and black and white keffiyeh around her shoulders. Speaking into a microphone, she begins with a traditional Muslim greeting of peace to mark the final night of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan.

As she proceeds, Chemerinsky angrily approaches her, repeatedly demanding she leave his home. Fisk then comes from behind her, grabs the microphone with one hand, puts her other arm around Afaneh’s shoulders, touching her hijab.

Fisk shouts, “This is not your house. It is my house. And I want you to leave.” After Afaneh calmly argues that she has the First Amendment right to speak, Fisk threatens to call the police but then says, “I don’t prefer to,” and tries again to pull the microphone away from Afaneh, briefly pulling her up several steps.

The nearly three-minute confrontation ends after Afaneh threatens legal action, and she and nine other students file out of the yard.

One of the students, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of reprisal, told KQED that as the group walked out, Chemerinsky said they had violated the student code of conduct and threatened to report them all to the state bar association.

The incident is the latest flare-up in a long succession of heated protests and confrontations on UC Berkeley’s campus, which has been a hotbed of student activism and protests since the Israel-Hamas war erupted more than six months ago.

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Afaneh said the incident had shaken her.

“No one thought that this woman would put her hands on me,” she told KQED. “I didn’t expect this reaction, of course. [And] I didn’t expect it when it happened. I didn’t even get the chance to talk about Palestine or UC complicity.”

Afaneh’s group, Law Students for Justice in Palestine (LSJP), has long demanded that UC Berkeley divest from manufacturing companies that supply weapons to Israel and accuses the school of being complicit in the widespread destruction of Gaza, where more than 33,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli attacks since October, according to Gaza officials.

The group called on their peers to boycott the dinners at the couple’s house, accusing Chemerinsky of aligning with Zionist causes and repeatedly trying to silence pro-Palestinian student activism.

“He’s provided no support for Palestinian voices, no support for Muslims, but is very staunchly Zionist,” Afaneh said.

But she argues that Fisk’s aggressive response to her on Tuesday had little to do with her activism but was instead rooted in Islamophobia.

“I was not attacked because I was speaking about Palestine,” she said. “Quite to the contrary, I was attacked because I was simply a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and a keffiyeh in her home.”

Following the altercation, LSJP released a statement demanding that Chemerinsky and Fisk resign and that UC Berkeley divest from the arms manufacturers and create a Palestine Studies program.

UC Berkeley, however, said it is standing behind the dean.

“I am appalled and deeply disturbed by what occurred at Dean Chemerinsky’s home last night,” Chancellor Carol Christ said in a statement on Wednesday. “I have been in touch with him to offer my support and sympathy. While our support for free speech is unwavering, we cannot condone using a social occasion at a person’s private residence as a platform for protest.”

In his own statement released the morning after the incident, Chemerinsky said he was “enormously sad that we have students who are so rude as to come into my home, in my backyard, and use this social occasion for their political agenda.”

But he said he and Fisk would not be intimidated and still planned to host the additional scheduled student dinners at their home, albeit with security measures in place. (An attendee of Wednesday’s dinner said the event transpired without incident.)

Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, said a poster that Afaneh’s group distributed before the event, with a caricature of him holding a bloody knife and fork and the words “No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves,” was blatantly antisemitic.

A First Amendment legal expert, Chemerinsky argued that free speech rights do not extend to a person’s home, insisting that he and Fisk were completely justified in preventing Afaneh from speaking out.

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“My house is not government property. It’s not on public property. It’s not paid for by the University of California,” he told KQED on Wednesday. “And the one thing that’s clear is there is no First Amendment right to use somebody else’s house for free speech messages.”

Chemerinsky drew sharp criticism from many students and alumni in November after he defended a law school professor who published an opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal titled, “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students.” The professor, he argued, was entitled to exercise his free speech, even if people found it “deeply offensive.”

And while he knew some students were calling to boycott his dinner, Chemerinsky said he never expected a confrontation like this in his home.

“I never imagined my wife and I opening our home for dinners to students would turn into something divisive,” he said. “I never imagined the students would post such an antisemitic image of me on bulletin boards throughout the law school. And I was shocked that they would come into my house and into the backyard and then engage in disruption.”

“Most of all,” he added, “I’m just tremendously saddened by this.”

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