Kanwalroop Singh had just finished presenting at the 2018 Students for Justice in Palestine conference at UCLA when a student journalist asked her for an interview.
Singh, a Sikh American who at the time was a law student at UCLA, agreed. She spoke to a student-run feminist magazine about her workshop on the Palestinian and Kashmiri struggles for justice at the conference, which brought together students from across the country to strategize on how to advance the campus movement for Palestinian human rights.
“I didn’t think about the consequences. I thought, ‘It shouldn’t be a problem. It’s a small feminist magazine,’” said Singh.
A few days after the article was published, while looking herself up on Google as she applied for jobs, she noticed that she had a profile on Canary Mission, a website that blacklists Palestinian rights activists by creating dossiers on them and labeling them anti-Semites and supporters of terrorism. The profile contained links to all her social media accounts and noted that she had led a workshop at the 2018 conference, which Canary Mission claimed “celebr[ated] violence.”
Most of the other 65 presenters at the conference had feared being similarly blacklisted and did not want to face online harassment, denial of jobs, and being banned by Israeli authorities from entering Israel-Palestine. Canary Mission’s impact is by now well documented: Students say that it has harmed their mental health and impeded their desire to get more involved in the Palestinian rights movement. In some cases, FBI agents have relied on information compiled by Canary Mission while questioning activists, and Palestinian Americans have been denied entry to visit Israel-Palestine because of their Canary Mission profiles.
Now the students’ anonymity is at risk, thanks to a public records lawsuit filed by right-wing Israel advocate and attorney David Abrams, who runs a group called the Zionist Advocacy Center. Abrams is also a registered foreign agent for an Israeli government-backed legal organization which has helped file lawsuits against city governments that have criticized Israel and against Palestinian rights activists. The case is set to be decided after oral arguments in the Los Angeles County Superior Court take place on March 11, though both sides expect an appeal, whatever the judge’s decision.
“Canary Mission is well resourced and good at what it’s trying to do, which is ruin the lives of people who speak about Palestine.”
The lawsuit is a test case for whether right-wing Israel advocates can exploit public records laws meant to promote government accountability in order to undermine the Palestinian rights movement by erasing activists’ anonymity. In filing the lawsuit, Abrams has joined the ranks of those who exploit public records laws against their ideological opponents, a tool that has hit climate scientists, labor studies departments, abortion clinics, and agricultural researchers, among others. Because they are public institutions, public universities are subject to such requests.
“It’s targeting not action by the government but actions by private actors. It’s not trying to examine the workings of government, which is why public record laws exist,” said Zoha Khalili, staff attorney at Palestine Legal, a group that defends the free speech rights of Palestinian rights advocates. “It’s just private information about private individuals privately renting space on campus.”
The case also serves as a stark reminder of what often gets ignored amid the national debate over “cancel culture” and free speech: Palestinian rights activists are perhaps the most likely to suffer consequences for their political views.
“Canary Mission is well resourced and good at what it’s trying to do, which is ruin the lives of people who speak about Palestine,” said Singh, the former law student. “Because of that, it’s even scarier and more important that people’s anonymity be protected so they’re able to live their lives and learn about the things they want to learn about and speak about the things they want to speak about.”
In the run-up to the SJP gathering, UCLA was bombarded with calls by Israel advocates to get the gathering canceled.
In October 2018, Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., sent a letter to UCLA Chancellor Gene Block, expressing concern over a conference he claimed would promote anti-Semitism and warning that allowing the conference to go forward may be in violation of a federal law prohibiting federally funded educational institutions from engaging in discrimination. (Sherman claimed that because the conference was only letting in a select group of SJP members, it would exclude Jewish students, though Jewish SJP members did attend the gathering.)
In November, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to call on UCLA to nix the conference.
Abrams joined the pressure campaign on November 6, when he sent a letter to UCLA claiming that the university risked its federal funding if it allowed the conference to go ahead because, he alleged, SJP had connections to federally designated terrorist organizations.
As the lobbying campaign intensified, the UCLA Police Department shared a list of “possible speakers” at the conference with the FBI, even though the department did not yet know who the speakers would be. In a memo prepared by the police department and released as a result of the public records lawsuit against UCLA, the police noted that the FBI had investigated “several of the figures” due to their “high profile activism and ties to Palestinian groups.” The police department also noted that “no charges were filed and there are no active investigations.” After the UCLA police received a list of confirmed speakers, the department again shared a list of names with the FBI and checked to see if conference speakers’ names were on the U.N. Security Council’s sanctions list and the U.S. Treasury Department’s “Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons” list. None of the conference speakers’ names showed up on those lists, and the UCLA police again noted that “there are no open investigations regarding SJP, the speakers, panelists and workshop leaders.” The UCLA Police Department declined to comment on its outreach to the FBI, citing pending litigation.
The intense scrutiny led conference organizers to adopt strict security measures. Attendees were told not to throw name tags in the trash to reduce the risk of opponents finding out who they were. To move between buildings on campus, students walked together for protection and covered their faces. On the last day of the conference, about 100 pro-Israel activists rallied outside the conference, and one Israel advocate, holding an Israeli flag, interrupted the conference and hopped on stage before being shouted down.
“It was pretty bizarre,” said Irom Thockchom, a member of UCLA’s SJP chapter, who helped organize the conference. “At one point, protesters surrounded my car as I was driving to the venue to drop off supplies. They were taking pictures of me and some other people who were in the car, including an elderly Palestinian woman in the car who said, ‘This feels like Palestine.’”
Prior to the event, on November 15, Abrams filed a public records request asking for emails and contracts related to the planning of the conference, in addition to the names of all the presenters. After UCLA began to release some nonspeaker-related documents to Abrams, he amended his public records request to solely focus on the speakers’ names, which UCLA declined to provide.
In August 2019, Abrams sued UCLA for refusing to hand over the names, arguing that the public should know if terror-tied activists were present at a conference at a public university subject to freedom of information requests. UCLA declined to comment on the case to The Intercept because of the continuing litigation.
UCLA’s lawyers have made three arguments against releasing the names of the presenters to Abrams. First, because UCLA collected the names as part of a police investigation, the university argues that it is exempt from disclosure under the California Public Records Act, which includes a carve-out for investigative files. More substantively, the university is also arguing that disclosing the names would violate SJP’s constitutional right to shield its members’ names from public disclosure. In making that argument, UCLA’s lawyers cited a 1958 case in which the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment protected the NAACP’s right to refuse to hand over the names of its members to the state of Alabama, which was aggressively investigating the civil rights group. The third argument hinges on the balancing act called for by the California Public Records Act between public interest and potential harm: The university argues that its interest in protecting the students’ free speech and association rights outweighs any potential public interest in releasing their names. The university also argues that Abrams has failed to establish there is a public interest in disclosure.
Because UCLA has already released some documents to Abrams on the SJP conference, civil liberties lawyers who support UCLA’s position say the university has already fulfilled its transparency obligations under the law.
“Government transparency interests can and have been served here, and Abrams got the info he’s entitled to,” said Glenn Katon, litigation director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, a group that, alongside Palestine Legal, has intervened in the lawsuit against UCLA on behalf of the anonymous SJP presenters.
In court filings, Abrams, who did not respond to The Intercept’s request for comment on his lawsuit, says he does not work for Canary Mission. But civil liberties lawyers and activists fear that if the names of SJP presenters are in his hands, he would release them publicly.
“Abrams’s game is to try to get the names of people that he can send to Canary Mission,” to further intimidate “people who are activists against Israeli government policies,” Katon said.
Abrams is the most prolific user of anti-terror laws to target Palestinian rights advocates in the U.S.
Abrams is the most prolific user of anti-terror laws to target Palestinian rights advocates in the U.S. In recent years, Abrams has asked the IRS to revoke Doctors Without Borders’ nonprofit status and has sued Oxfam and the Carter Center, all over claims that the respected human rights organizations have links to Palestinian militant groups.
“David seems to have adopted the role of ‘lawfare’ innovator, working to exploit and repurpose U.S. laws in every way he can think of to target those he views as anti-Israel, with the goal of deterring them and others from challenging Israeli policies or supporting Palestinians rights,” said Lara Friedman, president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.
In recent years, a range of scholars who have written on or organized around Palestine have been hit by expansive public records requests from pro-Israel advocates seeking private correspondence and travel records. The scholars say that the requests are aimed at embarrassing them and deterring them from doing work on Palestine.
“I view these requests as forms of harassment and also as a way to gain information about how [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] groups do their work,” said Cynthia Franklin, an English professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa who has been the subject of records requests by a pro-Israel activist. “They’re invasive, and they’re meant to instill fear.”
The UCLA case, though, poses a new kind of threat because the targets are not accomplished scholars but students trying to enter the professional world for the first time.
“This invites the kind of chill that is implicated in McCarthy-era cases, turning over lists of organizations’ members to see if they’re Reds,” said Claudia Polsky, the director of UC Berkeley’s Environmental Law Clinic and the author of a UCLA Law Review article examining the abuse of public records laws. “That’s how you chill First Amendment rights — you make people afraid to show up and speak their minds.”
Update: March 11, 2021
On March 11, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge James C. Chalfant ruled against Abrams’s bid to force UCLA to disclose the names of presenters at the 2018 SJP conference. Chalfant ruled that UCLA and the civil liberties groups that intervened in the case demonstrated there was a risk of harassment if disclosure happened, and that the disclosure of presenters’ names would violate their constitutional right to freedom of association and anonymous speech.