[Photo credit: Middle East Institute]
By Mongi Dhoudi and Aida Mackic
The legal community has rallied in unprecedented numbers to urge the American Bar Association to intervene to stop blackballing, doxxing, censorship and discrimination of lawyers, law students, and other legal professionals advocating for Palestinian rights. The open collective letter to the American Bar Association (ABA) has now garnered signatories of over 125 legal institutions and more than 1600 lawyers, law students, and law faculty, expressing serious concerns.
Florida banned chapters of the Students for Justice in Palestine. The State University of Florida in consultation with the Governor Ron DeSantis has issued an order to have these student groups be deactivated.
The letter requests a letter to deans of universities and law schools, emphasizing the importance of inclusion, diversity, and free speech, and clarifying that Palestine advocacy should not be equated with hate speech or anti-semitism. Additionally, the letter seeks a request for public guidance against any form of discriminatory retaliation and inquiries into significant attrition in institutions based on protected classifications. The letter also wants law schools to form anti-doxxing task forces and issue a statement to remind state bar associations of specific ABA Model Rules of Professional Conduct.
The letter, which was drafted by a newly-formed team of legal professionals, aims to address issues of censorship, discrimination, and retaliation in employment for advocating for solidarity with Palestine. This action highlights a significant movement within the legal community to confront and tackle these challenges.
Chaumtoli Huq, who is an associate law professor at the City University of New York and one of the primary drafters of the letter said, “The ABA, as the regulatory body of our profession — overseeing both law schools and lawyers — has duty to lead, especially in shielding historically marginalized voices from discrimination and exclusion.”
She added, “As a Muslim, first-generation lawyer, I’ve navigated a maze of barriers, but what looms now is a dangerous shift that threatens the very pillars of our profession. It’s not just about entry into law; it’s a fight to uphold the basic tenets of human rights and justice, a battle we cannot afford to lose.”
In this powerful letter, a chorus of voices within the legal community is ringing out, demanding action against the alarming suppression of Palestine advocacy in law schools and the broader legal profession. The letter highlights disturbing instances where job offers were rescinded, employees terminated, and law students harassed and doxxed, solely for their stance on Palestinian human rights. Not only are they raising an alarm, but the signatories to this letter also demand that the ABA reaffirm its dedication to justice, inclusion, and equality. The outlined recommendations constitute explicit and indispensable measures to guarantee the acknowledgment and safeguarding of advocacy for Palestinian rights, which is a fundamental component of democratic participation and free expression.
Attorney Abdullah Alharoun, who was another drafter of the ABA letter, said, “Democracy thrives when debate is allowed and not foreclosed upon. The letter aims to ring the alarm bells as to how chilling speech and retaliatory practices on, among others, the university campus and within law firms can have structural and systemic negative ramifications especially on historically oppressed communities. The letter also warns against the inevitability of self-selection in our profession and hardening of barriers to entry that the regulators of the profession promised to lower through commitment to DEI.”
Attorney Mahsa Khanbabai noted the unique threat posed to immigrant law students who may feel censored or threatened in sharing their views.
“Many immigrant attorneys and law students have stepped out of their comfort zones to advocate for their communities which are often under-represented in the legal field. They now face a backlash for speaking on issues of Palestinian human rights.
“It’s critical that the ABA remind the legal community that they must uphold the right of free speech and continue to take steps to promote a sense of belonging for their BAMEMSA members and for those who advocate for universal human rights.”
The signatories to this letter are calling on the ABA to reaffirm its commitment to justice, inclusion, and equality. The recommendations laid out are clear and necessary steps towards ensuring that advocacy for Palestinian rights is recognized and protected as an essential part of free speech and democratic engagement.
The first recommendation of the letter is a direct appeal to the deans of universities and law schools. The ABA is urged to issue a letter emphasizing the importance of inclusion, diversity, and free speech. This is crucial to ensure that pro-Palestine advocacy is not erroneously conflated with supporting terrorism or hate speech – a misconception that not only stifles free expression but also endangers those advocating for Palestinian rights.
Another key recommendation is for the ABA to publicly signal its intolerance against any form of discriminatory retaliation, which is a vital step in safeguarding the rights of legal professionals and students, ensuring they can express their views without fear of unjust repercussions.
The third recommendation involves sending inquiries to institutions experiencing a decrease in retention rates of students and staff within protected classifications. This proactive approach would help identify and address any underlying issues of discrimination or suppression.
More importantly, the letter calls for the creation of anti-doxxing task forces in schools. This measure is critical in protecting students from targeted harassment, which can have devastating effects on their academic and professional lives.
The letter concludes by emphasizing the importance of ABA Model Rule of Professional Conduct 8.4(d) and (g), which pertain to unethical and discriminatory practices by attorneys. The ABA can ensure that state bars adhere to the expected standards of professional conduct in the legal community by placing emphasis on these regulations.
Beyond merely advocating for Palestinian human rights, the collective appeal contained within this letter urges the legal profession to maintain its status as a stronghold of optimism, fairness, parity, and unrestricted expression for all. This highlights the criticality of establishing a legal profession that is more inclusive and equitable, devoid of bias and discrimination.
Such petitions solidify the functioning of our democracy by engaging and mobilizing individuals to influence policymakers, garner media attention, acquire valuable data for subsequent campaigns, lend legitimacy and credibility to causes, raise awareness and visibility regarding particular issues, and possess a global presence. This letter to the ABA serves as a reminder of the fundamental principles that support both the legal profession and our democratic society.
Alharoun further noted, “The ABA should take these warnings seriously and issue clear guidelines and opinions as to what is acceptable and what is not without losing sight of the centrality of debate, zealous advocacy and disagreement in our profession and our democracy as a whole.”
Mongi Dhaouadi is the Executive Director of the Libyan American Alliance and is Founder and President of the Tunisian United Network, two organizations that are leading voices for democracy, human rights, and good governance in Libya and Tunisia respectively.
Aida Mackic, a genocide survivor and war refugee from Bosnia and Hercegovina, is working as a political strategist and human rights advocate based in the United States.