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Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine organized a die-in demonstration at College Hall on Jan. 29. Credit: Abhiram Juvvadi

A group of Penn professors filed a lawsuit against the University, alleging a pattern of "McCarthyism" for preventing speech in opposition to Israel and seeking to stop the University from submitting documents to Congress.

The lawsuit was filed on March 9 by associate professor of Arabic literature Huda Fakhreddine and history and Africana studies professor Eve Troutt Powell in conjunction with Penn Faculty for Justice in Palestine, a collective of Penn faculty who say they are standing in solidarity with Palestinians. The complaint alleges that efforts to investigate the University over alleged antisemitism on campus have threatened professors' academic freedom.

The faculty hope the lawsuit will convince the University not to comply with the House Committee on Education and the Workforce’s request for a plethora of documents pertaining to on-campus antisemitism, which they described as including "teaching files, emails, and other material for political scrutiny," according to a press release from PFJP.

“This nation is seeing a new form of McCarthyism, in which accusations of anti-Semitism are substituted for the insinuations of Communist leanings which were the tool of oppression in the 1950’s,” the complaint reads.

The suit adds further legal scrutiny to the University, which is already facing a complaint from multiple Jewish students alleging a failure to combat antisemitism on campus. 

The claim alleges that Penn is "privileging, protecting, and endorsing" pro-Israel speech over pro-Palestinian speech in the University's academic community. The complaint contends that the term "antisemitism" has been used “in egregious ontological error, to chill, punish, and end virtually all moral, political, legal, and other criticism of the nation-state Israel.”

A University spokesperson said that, as of Monday night, Penn had not yet been served and had no other comment on the case. A summons was issued on Monday.

Fakhreddine and Powell specifically criticized the University’s response to the Oct. 7, 2023 Hamas attacks on Israel, suggesting that Penn did not have a sufficient focus on free expression on campus and did not offer support to Jewish and Muslim students who have questioned Israel's policies.

“After October 7th, our protesting the beginning of Israel’s retaliation against Gaza were met with the doxing of many of us – students, postdocs, staff and faculty – and little if any statements on the part of the administration to support our right to free speech,” Powell said in the press release.

Fakhreddine wrote in the press release that following donor backlash over the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, Penn "failed to acknowledge how the onslaught of anti-intellectual anger endangered the Festival organizers and its mission as a university.”

The lawsuit also criticizes the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, the congressional committee that has been investigating Penn in recent months, due to “grave concerns” about the University’s response to antisemitism.

“The Committee is engaged in a partisan witch hunt by seeking syllabi, academic papers, and other material from Penn faculty of all ranks, with the search highlighting keywords like Jew, Israel, antisemitism, Palestine, Gaza, resistance, settler colonialism and diversity, equity and inclusion, to name most of their criteria,” the PFJP press release reads.

On Feb. 7, The Daily Pennsylvanian reported that Penn would begin a multiple-week process of transferring documents to the Committee. The requested documents included those relating to antisemitism or anti-Zionism on campus, pro-Palestine groups and actions at Penn, foreign donations to the University, and data on Jewish enrollment.

In a written statement to the DP, History and Sociology of Science professor and former director of the Middle East Center Harun Küçük called the lawsuit a "guardrail for our university" and a "good faith, even friendly effort" to prevent Penn from taking unconstitutional actions in providing the information requested by the Committee. 

"First Amendment retaliation is also a serious breach of the freedom of expression for which the United States is rightly revered," he wrote. "What is happening, in other words, is unamerican."

Küçük added that the request for documents will "likely serve as fodder for misrepresentations" that will harm Penn community members.

"I fear for students, friends and colleagues who are now vulnerable and sometimes even scared because they have acted and spoken from a place of conscience," he said. "Does UPenn want to be known as an institution that punishes conscience? I think not." 

In a Feb. 29 interview, Committee Chair Virginia Foxx (R-N.C.) told the DP that she expected Penn's rolling submission of documents “all to come together." She also indicated that the Committee has not decided whether to subpoena the University for documents, as it recently did to Harvard University.

“Penn has discriminated against those of its employees who work hard for this university and remain deeply committed to teaching all students, no matter their origins, their politics, or their religious backgrounds,” the PFJP press release read. “[PFJP] hopes that this lawsuit will encourage Penn to acknowledge that commitment, and to protect its faculty from a committee that forced the resignation of former president [Magill].”

Fakhreddine was directly criticized during the Committee’s December 2023 hearing featuring former Penn President Liz Magill. At the hearing, congressmembers questioned Fakhreddine’s continued employment at Penn.

“How are students in Fakhreddine’s class supposed to receive fair treatment when she endorses hatred?” congressmember Joe Wilson (R-S.C.) asked during the hearing.

The Committee’s Jan. 24 letter demanding a plethora of documents from Penn also listed Fakhreddine as an example of a faculty member who had “made antisemitic remarks and statements in support of Hamas” following the group’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israel. 

The letter listed several examples of Fakhreddine’s allegedly antisemitic remarks, including an Oct. 7 tweet in Arabic that “while we were asleep, Palestine invented a new way of life” and statements at an Oct. 16, 2023 protest that “Israel is the epitome of antisemitism [and] desecrates the memory of the Holocaust victims.”

The lawsuit also criticizes the recent lawsuit filed against the University by two Jewish students alleging an insufficient response to antisemitism on campus. It suggests that their lawsuit is part of a “social engineering movement to repeal the First Amendment as far as speech critical of Israel is concerned.”