A student group at Harvard Law School claimed this week that its stance on free speech and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict drove Milbank, Tweed, Hadley & McCloy to withdraw generous annual funding for student-run activities at the school.
Harvard said that Milbank had not rescinded its $1 million-dollar gift—$200,000 a year spread over five years—but the funds would now be administered differently.
The student group, HLS Justice for Palestine, said Milbank decided to pull its funding after $500 in firm-donated money was used to buy pizza for an event advocating free speech for pro-Palestine advocates. Milbank was recognized as a sponsor of the event, sparking a “flood of angry phone calls and emails” from “Milbank executives” and others, according to the group.
The students made their claims in an unsigned letter published by the Harvard Law Record. The letter was later publicized by pro-Palestinian media organizations and on Twitter by journalist Glenn Greenwald and others.
The group had purchased pizza for the event with money from the Milbank Tweed Student Conference Fund, according to the letter. The fund is endowed by Milbank and administered by the law school, which instructed student groups that receive money to recognize the firm as a sponsor in materials that promote Milbank-funded events, the letter said.
The day after the event, Justice for Palestine was contacted by the Dean of Students office and asked to remove Milbank’s name from a Facebook page promoting the lunchtime discussion, according to the letter. The group says it then asked the school to guarantee that it would not be barred from receiving money from the Milbank fund in the future.
The letter claims that Milbank asked that its funding for Justice for Palestine “be rescinded completely.” When the law school did not honor that demand, the firm pulled its funding from all student events, the letter asserted.
In a statement, Harvard Law School said Wednesday that Milbank had not discontinued its funding, though there will be changes in how the funds are used.
“The firm has decided there are other ways its support could be used at HLS to avoid creating any misimpressions that the firm endorses the viewpoints expressed by any particular student organization or journal,” the school’s statement said. “The law school is able to fund student conferences with other resources, and the law school has continued to maintain the same level of funding to support student activities.”
Milbank referred requests for comment to Harvard Law School. The school said the Milbank donation was a five-year gift and that the firm “was never involved in decisions about which events to fund.”
The event, called “The Palestine Exception to Free Speech: A Movement Under Attack,” featured attorneys from Palestine Legal, a nonprofit that provides legal advice and advocacy for Palestinian causes, and the Center for Constitutional Rights, an organization that works on civil and human rights issues. The topics discussed included “efforts to intimidate activists for Palestinian human rights … and impede a fair-minded dialogue on the pressing question of Palestinian rights,” according to a Facebook page for the session.
The author of the letter said Milbank’s reaction to the event “has only proven the point we were trying to make that day.”
“We are also disappointed, though not particularly surprised, that at Harvard Law School, too, there exists such an exception to free speech when it comes to Palestine,” the letter said.
The statement from Harvard Law School said both Milbank and the school are committed to freedom of speech.
Milbank’s relationship with Harvard Law School goes deeper than the fund for student activities. The firm sends about 30 of its associates to Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School several times a year for training on business and finance in a program called Milbank@Harvard.
The letter in the Harvard Law Record linked to an email exchange posted on the website of a Jerusalem-based organization, NGO Monitor, between a researcher at the organization and Milbank partner Tom Arena. The researcher asked several questions about the Justice for Palestine event, explaining that it was preparing a report.
According to the NGO Monitor website, Arena said Milbank established the fund in 2012 “to support the activities of student-run organizations and journals at Harvard Law School.”
Arena added that the dean of students and the dean of the school have sole discretion in determining how the money will be spent, and that more than three dozen student organizations have received funding, according to NGO Monitor.
“Although Milbank is pleased to support many student-run organizations and journals at Harvard Law School, the awarding of grants from the fund by Harvard does not mean that Milbank endorses the viewpoints expressed by any particular organization or journal,” Arena’s letter said, according to NGO Monitor. The letter noted that at the request of the school, the student group removed the firm’s name from the website promoting the event about Palestine and free speech.