Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt Divest Coalition’s Referendum Squashed by Administration

Vanderbilt Divest Coalitions Referendum Squashed by Administration

Over spring break, Vanderbilt administration blocked an attempt by the Vanderbilt Divest Coalition (VDC) to call for a referendum petitioning for a modification to the Vanderbilt Student Government’s (VSG) Constitution. The referendum was scheduled to take place on March 25th prior to its cancellation. On the surface, this action could be viewed as a harsh suppression of student activism on campus. 

In light of the active conflict between Israel and Palestine, in which over 30,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces and over 70,000 have been injured in response to Hamas’ horrific attacks on October 7th, 2023, the air of protest has swept across universities and colleges throughout the world. Vanderbilt Divest Coalition, along with Jewish Voices for Peace and Students for Justice in Palestine, have led Vanderbilt in supporting Palestine amidst Israeli occupation and this disastrous conflict. 

VDC is the university’s most diverse coalition of student organizations on campus. Thus far, 18 organizations have endorsed the VDC’s effort to execute the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement at Vanderbilt, a non-violent mobilization effort launched in 2005 to support Palestinian liberty, justice, and equality. Most recently, the student government at UC Davis (ASUCD) approved a BDS measure that would withhold its nearly $20 million budget from being spent toward the BDS movement’s target companies. 

According to the VDC website, its ultimate aim through the implementation of BDS efforts is to pressure Israel to comply with international law, summarized with the following demands: ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of Arab lands, dismantling the apartheid wall, recognizing the fundamental rights of the Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel, and protecting and providing for Palestinian refugees to return to their properties as stipulated in UN Resolution 194.

Dores for Israel, a bipartisan Israel advocacy group at Vanderbilt, argued on an Instagram post on March 1st that a BDS movement on campus does not effectively boycott Israel, but rather isolates and endangers Jewish and Israeli students at Vanderbilt. The post’s image depicts a  VDC poster that had been vandalized, changing the wording from “Divest from Genocide” to “BDS = Divest from Jews.” 

To initiate their goals, the Divest Coalition sought to first amend VSG’s constitution, with a BDS movement’s statute. The statute’s provisions would bar any VSG expenditures from its $200,000 budget to go toward the BDS movement’s consumer and organic boycott targets such as McDonalds, Sabra Hummus, and Hewlett Packard. To go about this constitutional change, the Divest Coalition utilized VSG’s central input institution: their petition website. To receive a response from VSG, a petition requires 200 signatures from Vanderbilt undergraduate students. VDC’s Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions petition received nearly 650 votes within a single day, demonstrating its strong support among the student body. Typically, after a referendum, the proposed amendment would travel through VSG’s bureaucracy to be approved. 

Nonetheless, Vanderbilt Student Government released a statement after receiving a message from Vanderbilt’s Administration over spring break, leading to the cancellation of the referendum. VSG was informed by the Office of the General Counsel that “under federal and state law, boycotts by U.S. organizations of countries friendly to the United States can result in fines, penalties, or disbarment from contractor status.” Thus, any action by VSG to withhold funding from the BDS movement’s targets would be prohibited, as they could be a liability to the university.

Indeed, Tennessee’s SB 1993 from 2022 prohibits any public entity from entering a contract with a company without a certification that the company will not and has not engaged in a boycott of Israel. However, regardless of how one interprets this clause, the Senate Bill includes a provision that exempts contracts with a total value of less than $250,000 from this boycott ban, and thus VSG’s $200,000 budget could allow VSG to fall under this exemption. 

Different U.S. courts have ruled incongruously on anti-BDS laws such as SB 1993 in the past. For instance, as of 2019, federal courts in Arizona, Texas, and Kansas blocked laws prohibiting companies and government contractors from engaging in Israel-targeted boycotts, deeming these laws a violation of the First Amendment. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court in February 2023 declined to review a challenge to Arkansas’s anti-BDS Act 710 after the Eighth Circuit dismissed the case under the pretense that the First Amendment does not protect the right to boycott. 

The clash between the Vanderbilt administration’s decision to block the referendum petition by VDC and the students’ push for activism reflects a broader debate on campus regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict and its implications. While Vanderbilt administration cited legal concerns regarding potential fines and risks associated with boycotting, the student body’s support for BDS highlights a growing momentum for Palestinian rights advocacy. The incongruity in court rulings regarding anti-BDS laws further complicates the situation, leaving the fate of VDC’s efforts uncertain. Regardless of the outcome, the discourse sparked by this incident underscores the importance of free expression and civil engagement in addressing complex geopolitical issues within university communities.


Image by John Englart from Flickr

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