A UC Berkeley law professor confronts a pro-Palestinian student during a backyard dinner

A dinner for graduating law students at the University of California, Berkeley, has become the latest flashpoint over free speech and concerns about Islamophobia and antisemitism on college campuses as the war in Gaza rages on. 

Video shot by a law student and shared with NBC News shows law professor Catherine Fisk trying to grab a microphone out of the hands of a Palestinian student during a protest at an invitation-only event this week.

Fisk and her spouse, law school dean Erwin Chemerinsky, hosted the event at a dinner in their home’s backyard Tuesday.

Malak Afaneh was one of 60 students invited to what was supposed to be a quiet evening before graduation next month. But it took a turn when Afaneh stood up and started delivering an unsanctioned speech through a cordless microphone she had brought with her.

“Peace and blessings upon you all,” she began. “Tonight we are gathered here in the name of commemorating our final few weeks as law students.”

The video shows Chemerinsky immediately interjecting and asking Afaneh to leave.

“Please leave. No. Please leave. Please leave,” he says.

Afaneh continues, and Fisk walks down the steps toward her. Fisk puts an arm around Afaneh’s shoulder and grabs the microphone with her other hand. The two appear to briefly jostle for the microphone before Fisk releases her grip.

Afaneh, the leader of Berkeley Law Students for Justice in Palestine, and a group of nine other protesters eventually left. She said the interaction was an “assault” and discrimination against Palestinian students. She did not file a police report, she said, because she is considering all her legal options.

“It was clear Islamophobia,” she said Thursday. “Assault is assault. No way should a law professor have put their hands on a student, period.”

Chemerinsky, who is Jewish, called the disruption “ugly and divisive.”

“I am 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,” he said in a statement.

At the end of a different video, Fisk says, “We agree with you about what’s going on in Palestine.”

Fisk did not respond to a request for comment.

Asked whether legal or disciplinary action would be taken against Afaneh, Chemerinsky or Fisk, Dan Mogulof, a spokesman for the university, said he could not comment on matters pertaining to students and personnel.

In an emailed statement, university Chancellor Carol Christ said she has been in touch with Chemerinsky to offer her “support and sympathy.”

“I am appalled and deeply disturbed by what occurred at Dean Chemerinsky’s home last night,” the statement read in part. “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.”

Afaneh said the chancellor has not contacted her.

Afaneh, a law clerk at the Council on American-Islamic Relations’ Bay Area office, had encouraged students to boycott the dinner because the university has investments in companies with ties to Israel.

Chemerinsky said in his statement that students had circulated a poster on campus and social media with a caricature of him holding a bloody knife and fork, with the words “No dinner with Zionist Chem while Gaza starves.”

“I never thought I would see such blatant antisemitism, with an image that invokes the horrible antisemitic trope of blood libel and that attacks me for no apparent reason other than I am Jewish,” he said.

Afaneh said the boycott targeted Chemerinsky because he is a representative of the university and has influence with school officials.

She and the nine other students agreed about two weeks ago to disrupt the dinner by giving a speech and then walking out, Afaneh said. They consulted attorneys beforehand to understand their free speech rights and what legal fallout they could expect, she said.

The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a watchdog group, said on X: “Peaceful protest on public campuses is protected speech. Disruptive protest and trespassing on private property is not. 

“The First Amendment doesn’t protect seriously disrupting events on public college campuses, much less at someone’s backyard dinner party.”

The UC Berkeley School of Law said in a statement Thursday that it paid for the dinner at the private residence, “as it does for all the student dinners.”

“There is not a First Amendment right to use private property for speech,” it said. “Even if the event had been held on the legal equivalent of government property, it still would be what is known as a ‘limited public forum,’ where there are allowable limits on who can attend the event, and what can be expressed.

“The source of funding for the event has no bearing on either,” it said.

UC Berkeley, the birthplace of the Free Speech Movement in the 1960s, adopted guidelines in 1966 to help students and administrators navigate First Amendment issues, which included creating “time, place and manner” policies.

Some students have recently been ignoring the guidelines, insisting they are being used as a tool to suppress their free speech, said law student Maryam Alhakim, a protester who attended the dinner.

“It’s being used against us in a way to curtail our activism,” Alhakim said.

Zahra Billoo, executive director of CAIR Bay Area, said she was more concerned about how a student was treated by a faculty member.

“It says something deeper about the racist way in which they perceive Palestinian students and those who stand in solidarity with them,” she said. “How would it have hurt for her to have made her speech?”

The confrontation is the latest in a spate of heated exchanges on college campuses across the county since the Israel-Hamas war started on Oct. 7.

UC Berkeley graduate students have spent months protesting beneath the school’s iconic Sather Gate, sometimes clashing with pro-Israel student groups. In February, a protest turned violent at an event featuring a former member of the Israeli army.

Last Friday, 20 students at Pomona College in Southern California were arrested after they stormed and occupied the college president’s office.

Several students were suspended from Columbia University in New York this month after they hosted an unsanctioned event on campus featuring a speaker linked to a terrorist organization.

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