Hastings College of the Law hasn't been prone to shrinking from controversial topics, holding conferences on topics such as the death penalty and abortion in years past.
But a recent event that brought together academics and attorneys from all over to discuss Palestinian legal rights landed the school in hot water with a group of alumni.
Critics of the school's March 25-26 "Litigating Palestine" conference, including at least a dozen alums, charged Hastings with endorsing extremist views, and forced the Hastings board -- in an emergency closed session the night before the conference -- to yank its name from conference materials and prohibit Dean Frank Wu from giving the scheduled welcoming remarks. The conference otherwise ran as planned.
San Francisco attorney Debra Bogaards said she was appalled when she looked into the lineup of speakers and sponsors. "I was so outraged by Hastings holding this political rally under the guise of a legal conference that I became active with my one voice," said Bogaards, of Bogaards Davis, adding she's never been an activist for any cause.
Wu and members of the Hastings board did not return phone calls and emails seeking comment.
Hastings Professor George Bisharat, who organized "Litigating Palestine," wasn't entirely surprised by the outcry, but said he had given the deans a highly detailed description of what the conference was about last June. "Everything about this was crystal clear from the beginning," he said. "It was vetted even more carefully than most of these conferences."
At least one faculty member feels the Hastings board made a mistake. "It was truly scholarly content and really the board committed a breach of academic freedom by taking such a position," Professor Rory Little said. "They were talking about the legal issues related to Palestinians asserting human rights violations and how to best litigate them in the international and domestic courts."
Little said he understood the alums' concerns, and said maybe Hastings should revisit its vetting process. But "the irony of the board's action was that far more faculty attended the conference than normal," he said, putting the number at 15 to 20.
"Litigating Palestine" was billed as an opportunity "to evaluate the strategies, limitations, successes and failures to vindicate Palestinian rights" in different court systems in the U.S. and abroad. "This topic is one of both practical and academic significance," the program materials state. Faculty from the University of Pittsburgh, Georgetown and Willamette University were on the program, as well as lawyers from the ACLU and National Lawyers Guild, among others.
Bogaards, who earned her J.D. from Hastings in 1981 and sits on the board of the Hastings Foundation, which raises funds for the school, said that after doing some research, she became convinced "this was not a simple weekend conference bringing together people to share ideas." Rather, she saw it as the school hosting "an anti-Israel extremist political organizing conference under the guise of legal respectability."
In particular, she said it was clear from a quick Internet search that a conference co-sponsor, the Trans-Arab Research Institute, has an extremist agenda, and the lineup of speakers at the conference was one-sided. "There was no justice of the Israeli Supreme Court, no Israeli professor invited to participate, no balanced view," she said. She emailed Hastings Foundation president Basil Plastires, Dean Wu and Hastings alumni voicing her concern. She said she did not ask the school to cancel the event and didn't attend.
The Anti-Defamation League also sent Hastings a letter, and after the vote commended the board for its resolution but criticized the school for not fully following through on removing its name. "This conference is especially troubling coming at a time when there is a coordinated global campaign to isolate Israel politically, economically and culturally through boycotts and the perversion of international legal principles," ADL San Francisco Director Dan Sandman said in a written statement.
Hastings Foundation president Plastires said he believed the board took its last-minute action to avoid offending the alumni base. There was no immediate threat by donors to pull money from the school, he said, but Hastings' leaders have little appetite for controversy on the eve of the school's biggest-ever fundraising push, designed in part to make up for lost state funding. "There was no threat of 'I'm going to cut you off,' but there was concern about how it would affect fundraising," he said.
Bisharat, the conference organizer, worked in the San Francisco public defender's office before joining the Hastings faculty 20 years ago. He maintained he was "crystal clear" about the program from the beginning, and attributed the reaction in part to supporters of Israel in the United States not being used to the more open debate that's characteristic of Europe and Israel itself.
As for whether the conference was one-sided, Bisharat said participants were invited for their experience litigating on behalf of Palestinian civil and human rights. "One of the premises of this conference was that encouraging lawful and peaceful ways of resolving disputes is a good thing," Bisharat said. "People who are hostile to that idea or critical of it, who didn't accept the basic premise of the conference, wouldn't have been appropriate for it. If you don't think it's a good idea to litigate these issues, then that is a discussion one can debate and have, but that wasn't the point of this particular discussion."
Bogaards isn't buying it. "What I think happened is professor George Bisharat presented the topic to the academic executive faculty committee," she said, "and did a bait and switch."